He had little commercial success during his tragically short lifetime, yet today Nick Drake is widely revered as one of British music’s most gifted, influential and emotionally powerful artists. In recent years, it has also come to light that the Warwickshire folk legend’s mother Molly Drake was another talented songwriter and poet, privately recording a series of songs in the 1950s and early 1960s which share the fragile beauty and sadness of her more famous son’s work.
Although not intended for public consumption, the collection Molly Drake was nevertheless released in 2013 and its gentle, elegant piano melodies and wistful, occasionally unsettling imagery caught the attention of one of the contemporary folk scene’s most important acts, Northumbria’s The Unthanks. Already known for their innovative Diversions series, encompassing brass band collaborations, a film soundtrack chronicling the North-East shipbuilding industry and the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony And The Johnsons, Volume 4 takes Molly’s music and allows it to blossom through a combination of sensitive vocal interpretations and flair for arranging.
The original recordings, made by Molly’s husband Rodney on a tape recorder, are simple, crackly performances very much of their time, with a lone piano and Molly’s sweet bur rather mannered vocal style. The Unthanks flesh the songs out, with McNally’s arrangements allowing greater colour and expressiveness, his usual fluent piano lines supported by Niopha Keegan’s violin, Chris Price on double bass and new Unthank Faye MacCalman on clarinet. Certain songs were never originally recorded but are re-imagined here based on oral reminiscences by Molly’s daughter Gabrielle, for example the delightful Soft-Shelled Crabs, a rare foray into more up-tempo territory with its slightly sinister, jazzy lilt.
The aforementioned Gabrielle Drake, a septuagenarian former actress, lends her rich, clear speaking voice to readings of her mother’s poems; sometimes unaccompanied, at others weaved seamlessly into the music – most successfully on the blissfully meandering closing track, The First Day. Molly poems themselves are sprinkled with metaphysical imagery and occasionally stark observations – Martha has perhaps the most affecting, thought-provoking couplet “I sometimes think that when it is time to die/I may perhaps have learnt the way to live.”
As so often is the case with The Unthanks’ music though, it’s the eponymous singing sisters Becky and Rachel who provide the most distinctive contributions. The gorgeous melancholy of their contrasting voices is ideally suited to material’s mood, and their idiosyncratic vocal inflections and technical brilliance enhance both the words and the melodies here superbly. Highlights include the heart melting chord change in the chorus of The Road To The Stars, the world-weary romance of Never Pine For The Old Love and the yearning harmonies of I Remember, but in truth this is a consistently excellent record from start to finish.
The one criticism that can be levelled at The Songs And Poems Of Molly Drake is that the compositions are slightly samey and earnest, lacking the different styles and capacity for playfulness that The Unthanks bring to their original albums and hugely enjoyable live performances. Yet as a tribute to Molly Drake and an effective realisation of her music’s full potential for the listener, it’s a resounding success.