Release Date: March 5th, 2013
Label: Squirrel Thing Recordings
A reel-to-reel tape recorder sits in the family room of an English home named Far Leys. It’s the 1950s and this machine turns and turns, impossible for it to be aware of its purpose or of how many people will ultimately be affected by its capturing capabilities. Until recently, that reel-to-reel would be forever remembered as the first machine to record the musical tinkering of a young Nick Drake. But now, with Squirrel Thing Records' release of nineteen tracks recorded in the 50s on that same machine by Drake's mother, Molly Drake, that reel-to-reel will be remembered for even more.
These nineteen short tracks are fascinating - if not hypnotic - for a plethora of reasons. As longtime Nick Drake producer Joe Boyd puts it: “this is the missing link in the Nick Drake story.” After spending nearly a month studying every second of this collection, not only do I agree with Boyd, but I would also go as far as to say that the same beautiful ghost that haunted Nick Drake’s dark, pensive albums exists here on these nineteen tracks. It’s in this thought that I’ve become obsessed with imagining this space: the family room, the reel-to-reel, and the dynamic of time between mother and son, all patched together through music.
It’s nearly impossible to review this late offering of Molly Drake originals without giving context and making connections to her son at every turn. Looking at the album devoid of any outside thoughts, it’s your typical parlor piano, its notes thrown askew by Molly Drake’s lyrics, darkness deftly sprinkled throughout, contrasting with the seemingly bright images of nature, love, and family that she conjures so naturally. It's a fine example of the kind of musical expression typical of the era, although if it had been released in the decade of its recording, it likely would have never found a way to break free from a market saturated with similar sounds. It's the type of music that was presented after desert was severed at the neighborhood mixer, and surely she played these songs at such occasions. Yet, even without knowing a thing about Nick Drake, there is a special, secretly captivating quality to Molly Drake’s voice. It's filled with a personality that shakes with the emotions contemplated in her lyrics. The music itself may be rooted in the standards of the 50s, but Molly Drake as a personality was way before her time, much as her son was. She allows her darkness and stark take on life to separate herself as a passionate realist baring out thoughts other musicians might choose to keep at a distance.
Wrapped around this beautiful and polished lyrical framework, Drake repeatedly reveals her darkest, yet most honest thoughts. As a woman in her thirties, she spends much of her time in the collection addressing bitter nostalgia, deep regrets, and musings on how things could have been. All of it is colored with thoughts of love tempered over time, and suggestions that having a child prevented her from living ambitions beyond motherhood. On “Poor Mum,” she sings, “After a lifetime of dreaming, poor mum, poor mum, whatever became of your scheming… nothing worked out in the way that you planned… nothing was quite as you thought.” The darkness of these lyrics add an extra layer of depth to her son's story as well, as it has been mentioned that these songs were often played for Nick when he was very young (two-ten years old). Song after song, she expresses her deep discontent at a repressed existence. On “Set Me Free,” Molly sings, “why should I be wrapped in this service, trapped in this madness, deep as a spell… deep as hell.”
It’s on songs like “I Remember” and “Night Is My Friend” where Molly Drake shines independent of any relationship to Nick Drake. “I Remember” is a perfectly patient and whimsical little tune where Drake allows her voice to float above the simple melody, evoking a narrator fully invested in sharing the best memories of her life. It’s a song that pulls on every emotion and immediately causes the listener to become nostalgic for moments they didn’t even live. On “Night Is My Friend,” Drake presents a fascinating take on a woman alone at night - her favorite time of the day. Her recollection of this time of day and the unique sense of freedom it brings her becomes infectious thanks to her ability to describe time and space through song.
The entire collection is filled with small imperfections; there are moments of missed piano notes, awkward tempo changes, and tape bends where the quality comes and goes, and all of them only serve to make the space and sound more powerful and haunting. Even a valiant attempt at listening to this collection as a stand-alone document immediately brings me back to visualizing Molly Drake playing these songs to a young Nick Drake. To Nick Drake, these songs must have been pretty little ballads, yet each one filled this family space with subtle sentiments of the yearning, regret, depression, and pain his mother felt on a daily basis. Call it a coincidence, but these same themes - as well as a similar method of hiding darkness behind gorgeous music - were repeated just a decade later... by Nick Drake.
This Molly Drake collection is a great listen for anyone and everyone, but for Nick Drake fans, it’s as important as any one of his records. Every piece Nick Drake recorded has been linked in the legacy of who I and many others consider to be the best folk musician of all time. Now, we have the prequel to the entire story, a collection of songs that defines the space where Nick Drake was first introduced to music. For the last month, I’ve spent the majority of my time listening to these nineteen songs and thinking about that family room, with its old reel-to-reel recorder. I keep going back to how reel-to-reels work - a supply reel leads to a take-up reel, and the recorded cycle is completed forever. I like to think of Molly Drake as the supply reel playing these songs, and a young Nick Drake absorbing it all as the take-up reel, each turn adding layer upon layer to his musical identity.
We all experience albums and sounds differently. I will always view this Molly Drake collection as the beginning of that specific reel-to-reel’s story. It recorded the mother, then sat on the shelf, then recorded the son’s first works. The son went off to college, the reel-to-reel sat on the shelf a little longer, then the son returned home, dusting it off and recording new works. It was probably back on the shelf when the son died. For years, the reel-to-reel sat on the shelf, sat on the shelf, sat on the shelf. It will never know the story of Nick Drake, the story of how far its recordings traveled, of how meaningful they became to so many people. But now, we finally get to know the important first chapter to the life of a very important songwriter. It was hidden here all along, in the Molly Drake collection.