Tom Flannery

Drinking with Nick Drake

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With his first two recordings, you could occasionally hear in Tom Flannery the sort of songwriter with whom the great Woody Guthrie might well have chosen to share a stage, the back of a flatbed truck, or a chord change. Both albums functioned within the grand folk tradition of storytelling, and like the songs of Guthrie, Flannery's compositions somehow seemed to transform average Americans into almost mythic dramatis personae, their lives into complex oral histories. The affinity ended, however, when it came to the actual sound of the music. Both Song About a Train and the stunning song-cycle The Anthracite Shuffle progressed well beyond mere troubadour records. They were developed around conceptual and lyrical themes, and both, to greater (the latter) and lesser (the former) degrees, were intricately produced. On his third effort, the songwriter scales back somewhat on the ambition of his previous works without diminishing in the least the scope of his vision. In fact, Drinking With Nick Drake is the sort of record, in every respect, that Flannery seemed destined to make -- intimate, direct, beautifully limpid, a crystallization of perspective if not a stylistic progression. Because of a confessed nervousness around modern recording technology, the album is only nominally produced (but appropriately so) by compatriot Lorne Clarke (who also contributes the fine "Coaster"). It finds the artist in an old Pennsylvania church (in the middle of a snowstorm, no less) with only his acoustic guitar, harmonica, and voice at hand. There could scarcely be a more appropriate or ideal context for these songs than this stripped-down, humble setting. Some might miss the instrumental color of the previous albums, and musically these compositions are not significantly different from those of his preceding corpus -- indeed, it would be difficult to improve on such an already outstanding body of work -- yet it offers the strongest set of lyrics Flannery has yet penned, from the witty, irreverent talking blues of "Talking Stranger in New York Blues" to the poignant character and situational studies, each as complete and flawlessly drawn as a short story, that make up the album's midsection. As with much of his work, the songs on Drinking seem to breathe the same air as Guthrie's tunes. But here they seem shaped from the very same clay as well.