George Starostin's Reviews



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Michael Hughes <> (16.08.2003)

The thing about Nick Drake is that you have to listen to him a lot to get it.  The first time you hear his stuff it makes very little impression, but then you listen to it again and then again and then on the fourth listen you hear something that gets you and then on the fifth listen you are hooked.  I have found that many of the albums that I really loved followed just that route to my little old heart.  So while I understand many of the comments about Drake, I recommend giving his stuff a further listen and it might grow on you.

Tom Mitchell <> (03.04.2004)

While I am a major Nick Drake admirer, I agree that his songwriting can be uneven and that his singing can be slight. When both work (a la "Pink Moon" or "One of These Things First"), the minimalist lyrics and restrained voice compliment the arrangement (or lack thereof). But I can objectively concede that many fan-praised elements of Drake's work are often unremarkable. Drake's guitar playing, however, is astounding and accomplished. For the record, I do not use those words liberally. My comments (whether you agree or disagree) come with substantial perspective: I have played guitar and studied guitar technique for almost 20 years. While I am hardly an encyclopedic source of guitar knowledge, I think I can pinpoint the specific attributes of Drake's playing that deserve to be recognized.

1. Nick Drake's use of open tunings: I do not know how familiar you are with guitar playing so please forgive me if any of this is rudimentary. The standard tuning of a guitar is E-A-D-G-B-E. This "normal" tuning is a big part of what makes Western guitar music sound the way it does. And, for guitar students, this standard tuning is like the ABCs; the open strings are the building blocks of making music. Everything you learn early on is built from these notes and the way you can change them depending on what frets you press. Again, I apologize if this is elementary. Once you alter the open tuning of the instrument, your sound changes immeasurably. In some ways, it hides a multitude of sins. But, in other ways, it increases the skilled player's expressive range. Many guitarists (from Robert Johnson to Joni Mitchell to Jimmy Page) experimented with "open tunings." This is altering the standard tuning of the guitar in some way to serve a purpose: to add resonating (open-string) tones, to make intervals between notes easier to navigate, to make the open strings into a chord, etc.

When it comes guitar tunings, Nick Drake rewrote the alphabet. His use of these tunings, while not an original idea, was complex and ultimately inventive. He stands as a singular talent in guitar technique for his tunings alone. Musicologists still disagree over what exact tunings he used--thirty years have passed and people still can't figure out what he was doing. I think this adds considerable value to his worth as a guitar player.

When you're learning guitar, it is sometimes shocking and a little bit disappointing to realize how easy it is to emulate or reasonably impersonate the "guitar gods." Many of these players' signature sounds are simple and easy-to-master maneuvers. They were most likely happy accidents, not startlingly unique inventions. For example, the rapid-fire soloing of Eddie Van Halen (while it certainly is accomplished and almost impossible to 100% imitate) can be simulated by simply cranking up the overdrive on your amplifier and playing scales as quickly as you can. Even when you make mistakes, the overdrive and the quickness of the note progression covers for you. Another example comes from someone I know you admire. Harrison himself said that many great rock songs were created from random permutations of the D Chord. Just playing that chord, then removing one finger, then removing another finger while letting the D and A strings chime. This is how songs like "If I Needed Someone" and "Turn Turn Turn" and "The Waiting" and "I Need You" were written. Just like these player-friendly techniques, open tunings can be an easy way to make yourself sound like a much better guitarist.

Keith Richards is a prime example. He tunes his guitar to an open chord so he can just fist an entire fret to create a major chord. Why use three fingers if you can get away with just one?

With Nick Drake, there is no cheating. He tuned his guitar in such unusual and unexpected ways; it forced him to have exceptional hand technique (which I will discuss later). His tunings defy objective analysis and are, for all intents and purposes, impossible to accurately re-create. So you're never going to find yourself re-tuning your guitar one afternoon and--presto!--you just randomly come up with a Nick Drake tuning by chance. And--believe me--in 20 years I have, on more than one occasion, "learned" new songs or new tunings or new "techniques" completely by accident because I stumbled upon them while practicing or fooling around.

So, when you talk about Nick Drake's guitar playing and you say there's "nothing remarkable" about what you hear, I would have to say that my listening experience was very different. I can tell you, without being overly opinionated, that Drake was using a unique (or, at the very least, extremely uncommon) "language" for guitar playing. This alone makes his playing remarkable.

2. Nick Drake's finger-picking technique: Once again, I will start with a very basic statement. There are an infinite number of guitar picking techniques, but two very common ones in popular music are fingerpicking and using a plectrum (or pick). Nick Drake, like many of his 70s singer/songwriter contemporaries, used a fingerpicking technique; manipulating his fingers and thumb to simultaneously strike various strings in a rhythmic fashion. I can tell you, even at its most basic, this is not an easy thing to master. When you learn to fingerpick, the easiest method is called the "clawhammer" technique. It basically involves striking the lowest (bass) string with your thumb, then striking each subsequent string (moving from top to bottom) with another digit. You can vary your sound by altering the rhythm and the order in which you strike each string.

Nick Drake's fingerpicking barely resembled the clawhammer technique that so many other folk musicians employed. Drake was so skillful that he made one guitar sound like three. He very rarely settled into a straightforward, repetitive way of communicating each chord progression. He struck EACH STRING with different force and with alternating emphasis. This is not an easy thing to do; it requires an intense amount of practice and very close attention to detail. EACH STRING becomes its own instrument. It was like a string quartet arrangement created with only one instrument. His fingerpicking choices were extremely varied and elevated his overall technique considerably. I would call this remarkable.

3. Nick Drake's chord voicings and overall guitar-playing strategy: It's relatively easy and relatively intuitive to strum or fingerpick a chord. The very basic challenge of guitar playing is simultaneously pressing the correct areas on the fretboard to create notes/chords. Given that he was using an open tuning and a tightly rhythmic fingerpicking pattern, Drake could have utilized very simple voicings with minimal use of flourishes (see Donovan). But Drake instead added the final elements to his already remarkable guitar technique: He employed unusual, varied, and flourished-filled voicings. Notice how his bass strings play entire runs and specific parts--they aren't just droning notes that keep the chord foundation. Notice the variety: a 4-note flourish played on the high E string, a hammering run on the D string, little slides and mutes, staccato runs, a sustained note, etc. Notice how he rarely repeats the same voicing; something about the chord is different each time. Notice his dynamic control; the change from loud to soft, often WITHIN ONE CHORD. In a split second, when a simple strum would have been sufficient, Drake offers something magical. And if you don't want to take my word for it, quite a few more esteemed musicians than me admire Drake too, including Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) and Lou Barlow (Sebadoh, Folk Implosion).

I would only ask that you take 5 minutes and listen to "Black Eyed Dog" on the "Time of No Reply" album. Every element that I describe above is evident in this song. It's the technique that keeps me coming back to Nick Drake's music.


Revolver <> (26.10.2001)

Amazing record. I agree the orchestration really add to the beauty of the record, of course, ill never get the complaints about it. And "Fruit Tree" is just such a beauty of a song. Nick definatly predicted the end, tell ya that much. What an ironic name for an album! 5 years later (Five leaves left) he died by overdosing on anti-depressants (ironic again), which he used for sleeping pills. What a shame, poor poor nick. Anyway i agree with the rating, maybe even a 13; or 9 out of 10.

Steve Potocin <> (05.12.2002)

A quick word on this record; 'Riverman' is the MOST melancholy tune of all time! I'm not talking about the lyrics, the music does it. No more Cure or Smiths, who needs albums by those crybabies, when you have this song. Once or twice a year is all you for required music induced depression!

Bryant Holderried <> (02.12.2005)

I have a minor correction to point out about the string arrangement of "Riverman" from Five Leaves Left. Namely, that it was done by a guy named Harry Robinson and not by Robert Kirby (who did all the other string arrangements on this album and on Bryter Layter as well). Here's a link to a transcript from a BBC piece on Drake that mentions the decision to use Robinson (see roughly halfway down the page):

I mention this mostly because you (rightly) praised the song's arrangement in your review. This seemed important to me because it is the only string arrangement on any of Drake's songs that I feel really adds something to the piece, rather than just filling it out. I'm not a huge fan of the strings on Drake's songs, but on "River Man" I'm willing to admit that they make it a much better thing than a spare guitar and vocal arrangement would have been.


Adrian Denning <> (29.11.2001)

On the whole, this is far less cohesive than either of his other studio albums. It's reputation perhaps rests on the likes of 'Northern Sky' which is simply superb, romantic and heartbreaking. Fives Leaves Left had better songs. Pink Moon didn't have better songs but created a wonderful atmosphere all of it's own. Bryter Layter has it's share of filler, it has often over the top orchestration but on the whole remains a good listen. And yes, 'Northern Sky' really IS wonderful :)

Adam Gray <> (11.03.2002)

George, while I read and respect your reviews, I recommend that you take a listen to 'Northern Sky' and 'Cello Song' again. You say they "do nothing" for you, but I guaranee if you give them a couple more listens they'll sink in. Two of Drake's finest songs in my opinion.


Joe H <> (27.11.2001)

Something about this album just seems dark, chilling and depressing for me. I can be all in a good mood listening to some happy Beatles or something and put this on and my mood totally rearranges. Maybe its cuz i find the songs so beautiful that his death is such a tragedy, and these songs always make me think of his death? Maybe. But i love the concept of man with acoustic, like Bob Dylan or The Who's "Sunrise" or John Lennon's "Julia" or acoustic demos or what have you. I always find them depressing in a beautiful way (well, Bob Dylan's acoustic songs usually arent that depressing, but just usually clever, funny, or beautiful, but im not writing about Bob! Im writin' about Nick!). So i guess thats how id describe this album. Dark, depressing, lonely, and at the same time beautiful. "Know" is even fun! Nice little bluesy tune, although probably could of been better electric with a full band. Just a very nice record. The acoustic arrangement is enough for me. No intricate arrangments nessasary in my opinion. The songs are beautiful on their own. I gladly give it a 10/10.

<> (27.01.2002)

You criticize pink moon for its underdevelopment and lack of arrangement; however, i think these characteristics actually can be a positive quality(in some instances). For a deeply introspective artist such as Nick Drake, these qualities can contribute to the honesty , tone, and overall purpose of the music. This underdeveloped quality gives a sort of sincerity to the songs, as if they were Drake's feelings exposed totally naked and direct to the listener. In Drake's case, arrangement and development can create a more manipulated and artificial sound that does not always do justice to what I consider the deep and desperate creations of a desperate man. I love the site and keep up the good work.

Charles Cronk <> (19.05.2002)

I really like this album. It is the one Nick Drake album I can listen to all the way thru without skipping a track(even 'Horn'!, haha). It creates a mood. And yes, maybe you are right in saying part of the appeal is the image of Nick: in the studio, in the dark, by himself, slowly giving in to his demons. It seems to me at that point he knew he would never be a commercial success, but still had something to say. To leave a legacy, and maybe these are his most personal songs.

It is funny how different people hear things so differently. The songs you pick out as being not-so-special, just so happen to be among my favorites: 'Cello Song', 'Northern Sky', 'Which Will', and 'Rider On The Wheel'. Yet you have singled out 'Poor Boy', 'Man In A Shed' , and 'Saturday Sun' as some of the "better" songs. The only one of those that I listen to is 'Man In A Shed', and only from the Time of No Reply compilation. It is much better IMO. While I like most of the arrangements on 'Five Leaves Left', the piano clashes completely against the feel and mood of that song, and also covers up the vocals and guitar.

As to your ratings, the only real beef I have is with the "1" for originality. For a good read as to why this is off-base go to this link:

To sum it up, he was one of the most original songwriters of his time. From his extensive use of "cluster chords" on guitar, the prosody, and the structures, especially where he would start his melodies; often on the 3rd beat, or the beginning of the second bar of music(often 2nd chord). To me, at least, this explains why much of his music sounds so contemporary. A lot of his songs had simple, pretty melodies. But there is a lot going on musically, and a whole lot going on with guitar tunings and picking patterns.

It's almost becoming the "in" thing for a recording artist to "name-drop" Drake: "Yeah, I've always been a huge Nick Drake fan..." But when one listens, and digs a little deeper...Or when (Lord, help you) you try to play a Nick Drake song, you realize how truly original and completely unique he was. A musical island unto himself, just as he seemed to be a social and emotional one....

Ian Allcock <> (02.09.2002)

Just to let you know, the spareness of Pink Moon *was* intentional, at least according to Drake's engineer. He actually told the man that no orchestral arrangements would be on the album because he wanted it to focus solely on his own state of mind and emotional pain. At least, that's what the engineer claimed in one interview (look to The Nick Drake Files for this interview).

David Dickson <> (20.01.2003)

This is a pure acoustic album with average song length two and a half minutes. No overdubs, no other musicians, NOTHING. And it's less than half an hour long. Good God, it's GOTTA suck. I mean, at least extend the LENGTH, for Christ's sake! Have some AMBITION, for the love of Pete! THIS is supposed to be one of the best albums ever? Come on. I suppose next you'll be telling me that the Strokes are the future of rock and roll, huh? Give me a flaming break, punk lover.

At least, that's what I thought before I listened to Pink Moon, an album I was not looking forward to hearing and thought I could use my time better by ignoring. And, come to think of it, why shouldn't I? I'm a rock opera fan who thinks Dark Side of the Moon and Goodbye Yellow Brick Road are the two best albums ever. Bombast and sprawl, that's my cup of java. Now just look at Pink Moon. I mean, just LOOK AT IT. It's so wimpy and simplistic and lightweight looking that you just gotta be a Drakeite to even say its name without snorting. Hee-hee, Pink Moon, you wimp. Why're you so small, huh? Did your mommy not feed ya?

Even now, I can hardly believe how tiny and inobstrusive this LP is. Twenty-seven minutes, eleven songs, only one infinitesimal overdub on the whole record. Wow.

And--get ready for this--it's a flaming masterpiece. Ten out of ten, hands down. I would never have believed an artist could accomplish so much with so little before hearing it. Good God, how could anyone achieve this effect with just himself and his axe? Amazing. Not even Bob Dylan has so amazed me in such a way. And in just twenty-seven minutes! I mean, how . . . ?

My favorite songs on the album are "Pink Moon", "Which Will", "Things Behind the Sun", "Parasite", and "For the Morning", but really, they just all flow together in one intimate quiet experience. The main part of the effect, I'll gather, has to be his voice, which is soooo inobstrusive and quiet but so distinctive that you can't help but remember it. Darrrr! How'd he ever generate such an atmosphere? And check out the "filler" tracks, such as "Road", "Harvest Breed" and "Horn". They're so expertly placed that you hardly even notice the fact that it probably only took him half an hour to write and record them. In fact, I'll warrant that he probably just wrote "Horn" on the spot after hearing "Which Will" and "Things" back to back. He was probably thinking "Hmmm, this calls for an interlude! One-minute track coming up!" and five minutes later--there you go! No longer an EP, this disc!

Seriously, now, this album is amazing. You don't need to be a Nick Drake fanatic to absolutely love it. Need proof? I am not a Nick Drake fanatic! In fact, I'd never even heard of the guy until yesterday! Yet I consider Pink Moon one of the best albums ever made. And get this: I haven't heard any of his other stuff. Five Leaves Left, though, is supposed to be even better than this! Holy merciful dylan, I'm in folkie heaven!

Jimmy Headrick <JGOLF@PGA.COM> (23.03.2006)

I believe most people just missed it and it is so clear today. I feel deep down he was tired of the overproduction of his first two albums in the same way Cat Stevens was earlier in his career prior to Island. Pink Moon is to Nick Drake what Mona Bone Jakon was to Cat Stevens. They were both the same age, both with Island and Nick probably saw where Cat insisted it would be his way after he nearly died of TB. Listen to earlier work of Cat and you will hear the overproduction, he got off the carousel of the starmaking machine in the same way Nick did with Pink Moon. It was going to be Nick's way and I am sad he did not live long enough to experience this more.


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