Album of the Week, November 22: Solid Air by John Martyn

MartynSolidIn late 1971, John Martyn released a masterpiece. After four solid albums of contemporary folk — often tinged with blues or jazz elements — Bless the Weather was a revelation. With stronger songwriting, more experimental vocals, and a much broader musical palette, Martyn created his own jazz-folk sound. After several months of touring with the material, he entered the studio and recorded the single May You Never. Dissatisfied with the result, he regrouped, adding another eight songs  and entering Basing Street Studios in December 1972. Somehow he managed to nearly match the brilliant power of Bless the Weather, creating another landmark album that has inspired generations of  musicians.

Album Solid Air
Act John Martyn
Label Island Release Date February 1973
Producer John Martyn and John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Solid Air
  2. Over the Hill
  3. Don’t Want to Know
  4. I’d Rather Be the Devil
  5. Go Down Easy
  6. Dreams By the Sea
  7. May You Never
  8. The Man In the Station
  9. The Esy Blues

The kickoff is a stunner. Dedicated to Martyn’s friend Nick Drake, it’s a jazzy meditation on isolation. With a delicate vibraphone line from Tristan Fry, the song doesn’t sound like anything else in the Martyn catalog. Somehow it also fits perfectly, announcing another burst of creativity and growth.

Over the Hill is a bright kiss-off song, with Martyn declaring his independence from the forces that try to hold him back. It’s the most traditional of the set, with an almost Appalachian feel propelled by mandolin (Richard Thompson), autoharp (Simon Nicol), and fiddle (Sue Draheim). Energetic and engaging, it harkens back to Martyn’s roots without losing any of the creative energy. Don’t Want to Know is a more rock oriented number with a smart piano line. An urgent call for love in a dark world, it keeps the energy crackling. This trio is one of the strongest sequences in Martyn’s catalog, a nice exploration of determination.

The lone cover on the disc is a gripping version of Skip James’ I’d Rather Be the Devil. A surging blues backdrop moves the song along, breaking down into a spacey guitar solo. The musical landscape evokes an underworld journey, then the drums kick back in and Martyn rocks his way out of the song. Go Down Easy is an acoustic number featuring a vocal in Martyn’s highest register. It’s a quiet ramble into a peaceful glade, a romantic idyll that provides a nice antidote to the Devil.

An almost Shaft-style guitar opens Dreams By the Sea, a driving, funky number. With a squalling sax and syncopated rhythm, it conjures up the nightmare images of the title. Martyn’s rapid-fire vocal is flawless and bold. Things calm down with a new version of May You Never, a song that became a staple of Martyn’s live shows for the rest of his life. A charming invocation of well wishes, it’s another nod to folk’s traditional roots. Acoustic but not demure, it features a very different vocal that’s just as effective.

The Man In the Station uses keyboards to create a dreamlike feel. Each verse ends with a smart burst of percussion as Martyn promises to catch “the next train home”. The rapid changes of pace capture the sense of waiting and impending travel, and the band pull the train into the station with enthusiasm. Things wrap up with The Easy Blues, a fine jaunt that would be a standout on most albums but serves more as a coda on this powerful journey.

With the one-two punch of Bless the Weather and Solid Air, John Martyn shattered genres and declared his stylistic independence. He would continue to chart his own course for another 35 years, blending more jazz, worldbeat, synth, and modern rock sounds into the mix. A pioneer and a unique talent, he never released an uninteresting album, but he never quite matched the fire that burned in 1971 – 73.

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Song of the Day, October 2: I’d Rather Be the Devil by John Martyn

MartynDevilToday’s song is I’d Rather Be the Devil as interpreted by John Martyn. The song was written by Delta blues master Skip James. It’s a scorching song of dark independence, fitting into the tradition of songs like Hellhound on My Trail.

Martyn had just recorded the brilliant Bless the Weather, a significant point of growth in his career. The follow-up, Solid Air, proved the second of a one-two punch that few artists ever accomplish. Rocking harder and more fully incorporating jazz and hinting at world sounds, it set the stage for the rest of his productive career. This one cover in a set of strong originals was well-chosen. Martyn’s guitar work is as stunning as ever, and he growls the lyrics with a perfectly grim determination.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, January 14: Back Down the River by John Martyn

MartynRiverToday’s song is Back Down the River by John Martyn, another standout track from his stunning album Bless the Weather. A contemplative, acoustic number, it shows off the quieter side of Martyn’s genius. It’s a tribute to a growing relationship, using the river as a metaphor for how the couple will grow together over time. Martyn’s sinuous guitar line and persuasive vocal make for a beautifully compelling package.

I know that we’re gonna be together, you and me
For more than a rhyme or two, your time belongs to me

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, April 8: The Cure by John Martyn

John-Martyn-CooltideToday’s song is The Cure by John Martyn. It appears on his 1991 album Cooltide, a jazzy return to form after his more experimental work in the 80s. His voice is a bit rougher, but his delivery is perfect, and the song is surprisingly upbeat for Martyn. While heartbreak is behind the scenes, the lyrics mostly celebrate the power of love as a complex force. More than that, it is “the only cure.”

Love is cruel, love is kind, love is never, never blind
Love is honest, love is beautiful and blue
Love is always safe and sound, love will always fool around
There’s not a single thing that you can do
Don’t you know that love is the only cure for your broken heart?

Enjoy this powerful live version of a wonderful song about the power of love today.

Album of the Week, March 3: Bless the Weather by John Martyn

BlesstheWeatherJohn Martyn was born in 1948 and spent his youth split between his mother’s England and his father’s Scotland. He attended art school in Glasgow, the city to which he maintained the strongest ties. Playing a blend of folk and blues, he began performing and developing his distinctive guitar style. He was signed to Island in 1967; his debut, London Conversation, was a solid bit of folk work that only hinted at where his talents would lead him. He recorded one more solo album and two discs co-credited to his wife Beverley, slowly moving from standard folk and blues to a sound all his own. In 1971 he recorded and released his first truly brilliant album, Bless the Weather.

Title Bless the Weather
Act John Martyn
Label Island Release Date November 1971
Producer John Martyn and John Wood
U.S. Chart  n/c U.K. Chart  n/c
Tracks
  1. Go Easy
  2. Bless the Weather
  3. Sugar Lump
  4. Walk On the Water
  5. Just Now
  6. Head and Heart
  7. Let the Good Things Come
  8. Back Down the River
  9. Glistening Glyndebourne
  10. Singin’ In the Rain

The album was written and recorded very quickly. Martyn would often write a song and lay down the basic tracks the same day. That spontaneity led to a very natural feel that suited the material beautifully. The songs fit together into a consistent whole, but each has its own distinct sound, much of which blended into his sound over future releases. His backing band included luminaries like Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson, and Ian Whiteman.

Things start off with Go Easy, a quiet reflection on life. It’s a perfect first track, setting up the tension between adventure and caution that echoes throughout the album. Bless the Weather is one of Martyn’s finest songs ever and flows nicely from Go Easy. It paints a picture of a tumultuous but ultimately rewarding relationship. The guitar work is stellar, demonstrating Martyn’s growing confidence and experimentation.

Sugar Lump is the closest to a throwaway on the album, a bit of gritty blues with lusty overtones. It’s nicely delivered, however,  and shows off the vocal variations that would become a bigger part of Martyn’s work on future albums. Walk On the Water has a jazzier feel with a marimba line that works very well with Martyn singing in his higher register. It’s a nice piece of naturalism, too, the other theme that resonates throughout the disc. On the original release, side one wraps up with Just Now, a great companion to Go Easy that creates a solid whole from the side. The song also features some lovely piano work from Whiteman.

Side two starts off very strong with another Martyn classic. Head and Heart is an amazing plea for truly authentic love, achingly delivered in one of his best vocals. The acoustic guitar work is also stunning; the song was a feature of most of his live shows and he truly showed his virtuosity with it. Beverley Martyn, no longer part of the official act, makes a strong appearance on Let the Good Things Come. Her high, pure vocals provide a nice counterpoint to John’s. The overall effect bolsters the optimism of the song nicely. Martyn goes back to nature on Back Down the River, a sweetly quiet song that also speaks of independence, a frequent Martyn theme.

Nothing in Martyn’s past truly prepared listeners for the 6:30 instrumental Glistening Glyndebourne. It’s one of his first thorough uses of echoplex and truly shows the experimental approach to music that he is setting up. It could be self-indulgent or rambling (as Rolling Stone accused in an early review) but in fact is a bold statement of musical intent. The skill of his musical partners helps make the jazzy track work and the song serves as a testament to just how innovative Martyn was.

Things wrap up almost tongue in cheek with the album’s only cover, a charming reading of Singin’ In the Rain. Martyn delivers it with real joy, and it proves a nice choice, blending the nature, determination, and hope of the whole disc with a new reading of something very familiar.

FURTHER LISTENING: After Bless the Weather, John Martyn became vastly more experimental, merging jazz, blues, folk, world beats, electronics, and a host of styles into his repertoire. While that showed off his musical diversity, it led to much less predictable and consistent releases. The clear exception was the very next disc, Solid Air, which is nearly as strong as Bless the Weather. It moves things forward effectively and has nine powerful songs; the title track is one of his finest accomplishments (and was written for his friend Nick Drake). Martyn declared the harrowing Grace and Danger to be a personal favorite; it captured his feelings on the end of his marriage. By his untimely death in 2009, he had released nearly two dozen discs, each of which has something wonderful to offer. The Island anthology Sweet Little Mysteries is a great overview for beginners or casual fans.

Song of the Day, February 20: Just Now by John Martyn

john-martyn-just-now-islandToday’s song is Just Now by John Martyn. It’s another track from his stunning album Bless the Weather and shares the generally pensive nature of that disc’s songs. In this case, however, Martyn’s reflections have a fairly optimistic bent as he meditates on the power of finding home wherever one belongs.

Friend on the road, a friend in the home
A better friend now than I’ve ever known just now, just now, just now

Enjoy this beautiful song today.

Song of the Day, January 3: Over the Hill by John Martyn

MartynHillToday’s song is Over the Hill by John Martyn, a standout track from his amazing 1973 album Solid Air. Martyn continues the genre busting that he began with Bless the Weather, merging folk, jazz and blues into his own distinctive sound. He also brings in some stellar guest talent, with Fairport Convention’s Simon Nicol providing autoharp and Richard Thompson playing a tasty mandolin lick. The addition of Sue Draheim’s violin creates a jaunty feel, almost like a jig. The lyrics are similarly buoyant, presenting a willful independence, but with a very Martynesque dark edge.

I’m going away to leave you, I’m going to leave you in disgrace
Nothing in my favour, got the wind in my face
I’m going home, hey hey hey, over the hill
Over the hill, hey hey hey, over the hill

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Song of the Day, November 14: Head and Heart by John Martyn

Today’s song is Head and Heart by John Martyn, another amazing track from his 1971 masterpiece Bless the Weather. It’s a complex meditation on love, recognizing all the powerful threads that bind two people together. Martyn addresses the fears and insecurities that come from even the strongest relationship in clear compelling terms. It centers on the idea that true partnership requires both thought and passion in equal balance, the head and the heart.

Those lyrics are then married to a quiet, aching musical accompaniment that underscores his point without overwhelming it. He is in especially fine voice on this recording as well, with the ache of wanting to make love work resonating in every line.

Love me with your head and heart
Love me from the place it starts
Love me from your head and heart
Love me like a child

Enjoy this compelling song today.

Song of the Day, September 11: You Might Need A Man by John Martyn

Today’s song is You Might Need A Man by John Martyn. Starting as an acoustic folky, Martyn moved into more blues and jazz oriented territory, crafting a sound all his own. A talented singer and guitarist, he wrote most of his own material. After a self-destructive period in the late 70s, including the disintegration of his marriage, he returned to the studio with another new sound. Working with friend Phil Collins in the producer’s chair, he recorded a few albums of slicker music informed by the darker side of 80s pop. The results were mixed, but when the songs worked, they were great additions to his catalog.

You Might Need A Man is a powerful love song to a departing partner. Equal parts pleading and boasting, it fits a classic blues theme with a modern melody. It’s also one of Martyn’s most compelling vocals.

I knew the day that I would stand by you and all your failings
Now I’m looking out for me
If you want to split then I won’t tell a soul about you
Darling just you wait and you’ll see.

You might need a man
I might just be the man you need
You might need a man like me

Enjoy this fine song today.

Song of the Day, August 19: May You Never by John Martyn

Today’s song is May You Never by John Martyn. It’s another great track from his brilliant 1973 album Solid Air, a song of love, support and need. Relatively simple in comparison with much of the album, it is somehow more compelling for its lack of ornamentation.

And may you never lay your head down
Without a hand to hold
May you never make your bed out in the cold.

One of Martyn’s favorites, it was a staple of his live performances. It’s also one of his most covered songs. Eric Clapton famously included a solid version on his great 1977 album Slowhand. Other versions have come from a score of artists ranging from Rod Stewart to the Bellamy Brothers. Enjoy this wonderful song today.

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