A recent tribute
album, featuring heavy-hitters (Beck, Robert Smith and Phil Collins) and
lesser-knowns alike, offers a decidedly mixed appraisal of the late troubadour.
BY STEVEN ROSEN
John Martyn, the British singer-songwriter who died in 2009 after a
long career, continued the romantic, introspective folk/jazz hybrid that Tim
Buckley, Van Morrison and Pentangle had developed at the end of the 1960s. An
excellent guitarist, he also could write in the British folk tradition or rock
it up with echoplex, a tape-delay effect in his guitar’s amplifier.
He was revered in Britain – he (along with wife
Beverly) was part of the late-1960s/1970s Island Records
progressive-folk/folk-rock family that included Nick Drake, Sandy Denny and
Fairport Convention, Traffic, Jethro Tull, the Incredible String Band and more.
His musical sensibilities made him a hero to the trip-hop movement of the
1990s, as well as more recent freak-folkers. But he never was much more than an
acquired taste here in the States, maybe because his work was hard to
pigeonhole and because, sometimes, his folk-jazz could slip like mood music. (Read
more about Martyn at our
2010 profile of the musician.)
Johnny Boy Would Love
This… A Tribute to John Martyn (Hole in the Rain/Liaison Music), a deluxe
two-disc package featuring Martyn interpretations by 30 artists, attempts to
both honor him and introduce him to those unfamiliar. However, it’s primarily
for fans – the official release comes with a DVD and 40-page booklet. Many of
the artists are unfamiliar to a wide audience either because they’re new
(Sabrina Dinan) or are British folkies (Syd Kitchen, who himself died shortly
after recording “Fine Lines” for this project). There are enough big or
alt-rock names here to show the breadth of Martyn’s influence. But when you get
so many relatively unfamiliar artists on a tribute, you do begin to wonder
whether you’d be better off just listening to Martyn, himself, if you want an
On the plus side, the dreamy fluidity, undercut by
introspective melancholy, of Martyn’s best songs is especially well-suited for
David Gray, whose “Let the Good Things Come” has a fine vocal with a sensitive
arrangement that will have you noting Martyn’s influence on Elton John’s early
(and best) ballads. And the ethereal solemnity of Phil Collins’ album-closing
“Tearing and Breaking,” which has an overall feel similar to “In the Air Tonight,”
reminds us that Collins once did know how to get inside, way inside, a song
with substance, and still can if it means a lot to him. Maybe he should do his
own tribute album to Martyn. The a cappella ending is especially haunting.
It’s notable that the title tracks to four of Martyn’s
best-known albums all get strong readings. Beck displays a movingly sincere,
maturely informed voice for the gorgeously ominous “Stormbringer,” which
benefits from a spare arrangement that opens up for strings at key, dramatic
movements. This is chamber-folk, or folk-jazz, at its finest – and Beck really
rises to the occasion. Another American alt-rock icon, producer Butch Vig, has
put together the Emperors of Wyoming – featuring Fire Town’s Phil Davis on
vocals – to turn “Bless the Weather” as a, well, weathered, almost-Gothic
Americana-rock song that makes it sound like something from Dylan’s Rolling
Thunder Revue. Skye Edwards of Morcheeba sings an eerily slow, trip-hop version
of “Solid Air” that could stand proudly with the best of Portishead. And Jim
Tulio’s voice on the “Road to Ruin” is gritty yet tenderly direct – Tulio was
Martyn’s friend and producer.
Unfortunately, not all of their contributions are inspired.
Particularly unfortunate is Snow Patrol’s take on “May You Never,” which starts
off with a sweet slowness but falls into a meandering instrumental passage and
awkwardly lugubrious vocals toward the end. This is Martyn’s best-known song,
thanks to Eric Clapton’s version, and it needs a strong version here. It
doesn’t get it. Similarly, another big name for the project, the Cure’s Robert
Smith, just can’t move “Small Hours” past the atmospherics of his guitar
reverberations. And one hopes Paolo Nutini’s slurry overly emphasized
Marleyisms on “One World” weren’t inspired by Martyn.
This record certain proves Martyn is deserving of a tribute,
and that he has inspired other performers. But it would have been better to be
more sharply focused, and more limited in scope, so a wider audience could
discover it and maybe love it as much as Johnny Boy.