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Signature Sound

Bryter Layter—9 


Released: 1970

1) Introduction  2) Hazey Jane II  3) At The Chime Of A City Clock  4) One Of These Things First  5) Hazey Jane I  6) Bryter Layter  7) Fly  8) Poor Boy  9) Northern Sky  10) Sunday


Nick Drake’s first album, “Five Leaves Left,” had no obvious single and therefore no reason for the public to be interested at all.  It sold only 5000 copies, a statistic that depressed Drake to no end.  He realized that the only way to sell a sound like his was to go on the road and slowly win over new fans, but with his maddening stage freight he simply couldn’t follow through with such a plan.  Instead, Drake decided to quit Cambridge University and devote his career to music, determined to write songs that were more commercial.


He moved down to London and closed himself off, literally secluding himself into his ground floor, barley furnished room, writing songs to make his mark.  Most of his friends and family, in hindsight, suggest this was the beginning of the end for Drake and that he began to enter into a strange depressive state.  He rarely talked to anyone about anything.  Even when he completed his songs and entered the studio to begin recording them, he would never say whether he was satisfied or not with a particular take.  Joe Boyd, again handling the production, had the very difficult task of trying to relate what Drake wanted to the other studio musicians, but still considers the album that was eventually to be titled “Bryter Layter,” to be the finest he had ever produced.  This is due, in no small part, to the return of John Wood as engineer and Robert Kirby as arranger.  Kirby in particular, provided a much more subtle approach, not intruding on the actual songs themselves like on Drake’s debut.  


Bryter Layter” opens with exactly the kind of sound you would expect coming after “Five Leaves Left:” a beautiful, lush, minute and a half instrumental piece simply titled,  Introduction.”  It is as pleasant as the first album and just as lovely.  But out of nowhere “Hazey Jane II” comes rolling in—Drake’s first attempt at commerciality.  This song is a unique blend of orchestrated-country-jazz-folk with a borderline happy sound with Richard Thompson again handling the lead electric guitar.  Drake’s guitar, however, is astonishingly buried in the mix and horns set a much faster pace than what his few fans had grown accustomed to.  It isn’t bad, but is nowhere near the quiet, alluring glow of his first album. 


At The Chime Of A City Clock” is more reminiscent of Drake’s old approach, with a bluesy, jazzy flow, and understated orchestration.  Unlike on the first record however, the lyrics deal with urban scenery, made all the more significant by the more soulful sound.  Obviously, Drake felt that even his lyrical content needed to be adjusted if he was to sell more records.  Another track that clearly proves Drake was hell bent on reestablishing his sound, “One of These Things First,” follows.  It has that Charlie Brown piano sound with a rolling melody and this frolicking little ditty, beautiful and engaging, is one of the better songs of his first two albums. 


Drake’s adept guitar playing drives the exceptional “Hazey Jane I.”  Sharing hardly anything with “Hazey Jane II,” this is a gorgeous, restrained work, with simply the best-orchestrated arrangement of Drake’s career and excellent bass playing courtesy of Fairport Convention’s Dave Pegg.  A second instrumental, the title track follows and is almost whimsical, bursting with happiness.  I’m normally not a fan of instrumentals, and this isn’t a highlight, but it is really a very pleasing track.  Fly” features guest Velvet Underground multi-instrumentalist John Cale on viola and harpsichord.  His contributions are vital, but the tune itself is simply stunning—a gorgeous, Van Morrison like, impressive little song. 


The album closes with three brilliant tracks.  The jazzy, piano based epic, “Poor Boy,” with its female background vocals and great swinging vibe, is a full two minutes too long, but is completely engaging and poles apart from “Five Leaves Left.”  This should have been the number to break Drake, but somehow it failed to capture the right audience.  Inexplicably, neither did “Northern Song.”  John Cale returns, this time on piano and celeste, and helps create a dreamlike aura of pure innocence that is absolutely Drake’s most charming song and one of the best of his short career.  Every little added instrument sounds perfect on this track.  The final instrumental, “Sunday” closes out the album with a sinister sounding flute/guitar interplay.  It is a little spooky at first, but slowly melts into a pleasant grove that is ridiculously effective.                                       


Much like Nick Drake's debut, “Bryter Layter” will take time to lure you in, but after about the third listen, you’ll be hooked.  Every song is at least good, and there is absolutely no filler.  Again, like his debut, there are not really any choruses or sing along portions of the music, but it is reserved, painstakingly structured, and simply excellent.  Despite his best efforts though, “Bryter Layter” did not find anymore of an audience than “Five Leaves Left” when it was released, and Drake, devastated by his failure to sell more records, sank further into a depression that he would never recover.  Before slipping away though, he was able to create one more album…a sparse, acoustic folk record that became his masterpiece.

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