Christopher O'Riley: Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake
World Village

Issuing an album-long set of instrumental interpretations of a ‘rock' artist's work is always a bit of a high-wire proposition, with good intentions often resulting in kitsch. No stranger to the challenge, pianist Christopher O'Riley previously produced homages to Radiohead (Hold Me to This and True Love Waits) and Elliott Smith (Home to Oblivion) and now attempts an hour-long exploration of Nick Drake. The long-deceased singer-songwriter proves a natural foil for O'Riley's considerable gifts, however, even if the relative sparseness of Drake's presentation is exchanged for multi-layered piano arrangements that would sound perfectly at home in the conservatory concert hall. That in itself isn't so objectionable, however; certainly a too-faithful transcription from one context to the other would have been pointless. Second Grace … is most pleasurable when O'Riley retains and continually revisits an original's key themes while also journeying away from them into freer, explorative variations. Despite radical differences in presentation, the autumnal serenity of Drake's music isn't lost in translation, as O'Riley's lyrical style remains impressionistic throughout the hour-long collection, most of which draws from Bryter Layter. O'Riley's elegant, rhapsodic style brings forth the melodic essence of the material, though the pianist's interpretations often teem with a joyous, life-affirming spirit that's contrary to the downward trajectory of Drake's final days (O'Riley's version of “Pink Moon” is considerably more robust and high-spirited than the original, for instance). In keeping with the poignant character of the original, O'Riley's wistful rendering of “Fly,” on the other hand, is emotive without being sentimental (the song's words “Please, give me second grace” provide the source for the new album's title).

Nothing will ever replace the originals and certainly Drake devotees will deem O'Riley's virtuosic piano playing a poor substitute for Drake's singing. O'Riley's attempt is laudable, but his elegant rendering of “Northern Sky,” for example, is no match for the fragile beauty of Drake's original. But, taken on its own terms, Second Grace: The Music of Nick Drake offers its own particular kind of beauty and will certainly help keep the troubador's legacy alive. When the British singer-songwriter died of a suspected overdose at 26 in 1974, no one would have imagined that his small recorded legacy (three studio albums, Five Leaves Left, Bryter Layter, and Pink Moon, plus the retrospective Time of No Reply) would be championed so passionately and with such affection today, especially considering how woefully under-appreciated the material was at the time of his passing.

November 2007