Cover Classics takes a closer look at all-cover albums of the past, their genesis, and their legacy.
Wikipedia reports that Imaginary Records, an indie label founded 1985 in Manchester, England, specialized in indie rock and post-punk. What it really specialized in, though, was tribute albums. Roughly a third of their album catalog saluted other artists. These ranged from the usual suspects (Dylan, the Stones) to decidedly unusual ones (Captain Beefheart, Syd Barrett).
In 1992, they released Brittle Days: A Tribute to Nick Drake. This was at a time when Drake was still more a cult favorite than a favorite. Anyone who bought the album was as likely to be being introduced to Drake as to the artists singing his songs therein. These artists were themselves destined to remain cult favorites; no future jackpots here like there were on Imaginary Records’ first Velvet Underground tribute. Instead, devotees expressed their devotion to other devotees, resulting in an album that was quiet, reverent, and more than a little haunting.
Now that Drake’s songs are better known than they were when Brittle Days was released, it’s interesting to hear the way the now-familiar tunes were reworked. As with most tribute albums, some are reworked better than others, but these five can be considered the cream of this crop.
The Changelings – River Man (Nick Drake cover)
Brittle Days kicks off with “River Man” by the Changelings, who give the song a cool Middle Eastern vibe. Curiously, I can’t find anything else about the Changelings – there’s a band on Bandcamp with their sound, but they say they formed in 1995, three years after this album. They don’t turn up in any Imaginary Records discographies, either, at least not beyond this track. Changelings, if you’re reading this, call your mother, she’s so worried about you.
Clive Gregson – Northern Sky (Nick Drake cover)
“I cannot figure out the guitar tunings, I don’t know what the guitar’s tuned to ninety-nine percent of the time,” Clive Gregson told Drake biographer Patrick Humphries. “The chords, the fingerings, the way his voice sounds that good, it’s so dry. It’s a complete mystery. But at the end of the day, it’s just a bloke playing the guitar and singing. But it doesn’t sound like anything else I’ve ever heard.” None of Gregson’s puzzlement comes through in his cover of “Northern Sky”. Indeed, he sounds more like he’s been slipped the solution to the mystery.
The Walkabouts – Cello Song (Nick Drake cover)
The Walkabouts gave a decidedly American spin to “Cello Song,” slowing it down and taking away the original’s percolating congas. What they don’t do is get rid of the song’s melancholia. Instead, they find a different strain of it, and it’s just as affecting to the listener in its own dried way.
Loop – Pink Moon (Nick Drake cover)
Loop was a noisy guitar band that got a lot of comparisons to the Velvet Underground and the Stooges. So it’s quite a surprise when they come to “Pink Moon” with such deferential respect. They embrace the song’s hush, covering it like a blanket covers a sleeping infant.
Scott T. Appel – From the Morning (Nick Drake cover)
Scott Appel’s the only artist to contribute two songs to Brittle Days. It was a toss of the coin to choose which one to feature here. “Hazy Jane” is just as good a showcase for Appel’s deep-seated understanding of Drake’s guitar playing. Still, “From the Morning” was the perfect measure of hope with which to end the Pink Moon album, and it marks the perfect close to this brief taste from this fine tribute.
The entire Brittle Days album can be played on YouTube.
One final thing of note.
The English experimental band No-Man contributed a cover of Road to this release.
Oddly enough it was the band’s second Nick Drake cover behind a version of Pink Moon that wouldn’t be released until the following year on an “Odds and Ends” compilation called Speak.