Vinyl Corner is a feature where we take a look at vinyl pressings of various albums and weigh them up to see just how good they sound, how well they’re pressed and what sort of packaging to expect, as well as a brief overview of the music itself. This time we’re having a look at Nick Drake’s gorgeously understated 1969 debut album, ‘Five Leaves Left’.
It’s a sad fact of life that many great artists don’t receive true recognition until a posthumous upheaval of interest, sometimes decades after their passing. Although music has an unfortunate amount of such figures, one of the most notable, and today famous, of all is Nick Drake. The first of three LPs released in his lifetime, ‘Five Leaves Left’ is a superb album; crafted with stately dignity and a tender heart, it’s written with a wisdom well beyond the 21 years that it’s creator had lived when the album was made.
Musicianship is deeply finessed throughout; Drake’s own fingerstyle guitar work is gloriously complex but never gratuitously so. Every note chimes with a clarity only achievable by true mastery of the instrument, John Wood’s crystal clear engineering only adding to the clarity of Drake’s playing. Backing from members of fellow folk rock innovators Fairport Convention and Pentangle is excellent, too, Danny Thompson’s measured, undulating bass work keeping a steady yet singsong bottom-end, Richard Thompson’s playful electric guitar only adding further layers of depth to the songs he appears on. 1971’s follow-up effort ‘Bryter Layter’ accentuated the jazzier elements of Drake’s sound, whilst the desolate beauty of 1972’s ‘Pink Moon’ stripped all arrangement away, leaving only Drake and his guitar. All three are fantastic albums and choosing one as the best is an exercise in futility; suffice to say that ‘Five Leaves Left’ is a folk singer/songwriter masterpiece.
This is a quietly wonderful pressing. Made at Germany’s Optimal Media, this 2013 box set pressing was remastered by original engineer John Wood using the quarter inch master tape. It’s important to bear in mind we are specifically looking at the version included in the box set, as the standalone pressing of the album that also came out in 2013 is a different cut, despite similar presentation. No unnecessary changes were made during the remaster process and the overall soundscape remains faithful to the original; however the mix has been subtly enriched and, coupled with the excellent pressing, sounds beautiful. Robert Kirby’s stunning string arrangements sound lovely here, with all the frequencies nicely represented in an evenly mixed soundscape that never over-accentuates bass or treble.
An album as subtly orchestrated and quietly enunciated as this needs a quiet pressing as a matter of necessity, as even light surface noise would risk overpowering the music entirely or, at best, dulling the album’s impact. Fortunately, Optimal Media have done a great job with this pressing – weighing in at the best part of 180g, it’s a sturdy disc and our copy sits very flat and is free of defects. Even when heard on headphones, surface noise is extremely minimal and we didn’t hear a single pop on the whole album.
The box itself is very nicely made, with a chunky attractive spine that stands out on the shelf not only by virtue of its sheer size but also for the attractive green colouring and striking typefont. The box quality itself is really nice, although it should be handled with care as it can be dented quite easily. The art on the box features a facsimile of an original copy (presumably Drake’s own), complete with ringwear and dogearring. It’s certainly an interesting idea and, while we’re not 100% sold on the concept, there’s no denying the vintage & worn aesthetic has a charm about it.
Those unconvinced by the worn look of the box artwork will be pleased to know that the sturdy, well made gatefold sleeve that houses the actual record has not been given the same treatment and is presented in immaculate form, the album’s simple but affectingly striking cover art present in fine shape here. The inner sleeve is printed to appear as though it’s one of the original blue Island Records inner sleeves that would have been found with an original pressing, although here it’s made of cardboard rather than the thin paper of the original. It’s a nice touch aesthetically and it serves as a fairly good quality inner sleeve, but swapping it out for a Mofi inner would be wise in the long-term.
Also included are various extras including a fairly large and very attractive fold out poster, presumably fashioned after an original promotional item. Facsimile reprints of Drake’s own handwritten lyrics are also included – another pleasing, well executed touch that only adds to the intimacy and honesty of his music. Labels, too, strive to replicate the original UK pressing and, although the shade of pink used isn’t quite the same as the original, it’s nevertheless a great touch and another nod to long-term fans who may well be picking this up as a replacement to their own well-used originals.
This is a really excellent reissue from top to bottom. Although it commands a price of around £30, it is more than worth it, both for the quality of the pressing itself and the pleasing attention to detail found in the set’s presentation. This is a fantastic way to hear the album and, all things considered, actually a bit of a bargain.