The Church With One Bell
Independiente * * *
Album of covers from veteran folk-rock starsailor
There is no half-way house with John Martyn. You either find his unique vocal style affected and irritating or you think his expressive and emotive delivery is the ultimate fusion of words and music, his voice so perfectly positioned in the rich and intricate sonic textures he creates that it simply takes its place as another instrument.
A startlingly original songwriter for 30 years (he was the first white artist Chris Blackwell signed to Island), The Church With One Bell sees him tackling an album of covers for the first time. He has dabbled here before -witness his glorious take of Singing In The Rain on Bless The Weather 25 years ago- but performing other people's songs does not mean that Martyn has run out of inspiration.
He had special reasons for making this album (see Inside Track) and there will be another set of original material this summer1. Martyn promises the next offering will be very dance-oriented, and his groundbreaking use of Echoplex and phase-shifting back in the Seventies predated both the technology and the philosophy of modern computerised techniques.
That makes it entirely logical that he should sandwich his version of Portishead's Glory Box between such blues standards as The Sky Is Crying and Death Don't Have No Mercy. Martyn was trip hopping, in spirit at least, more than 20 years ago.
This is hardly the best album he has ever made, if only because it includes none of his own compositions, but at 49, his voice has never sounded riper. There are two songs by the neglected Bobby Charles, including the magnificent Small Town Talk, and unusual choices from the songbooks of Dead Can't Dance and Randy Newman.
He turns in an angry version of Ben Harper's Excuse Me Mister and boldly tackles Strange Fruit, the tale of Southern lynching immortalised by Billie Holiday.
It's typical of John Martyn that on an album of covers that many would regard as an easy option he should take on a song rated by many, including Nina Simone, as the most difficult in the world.
Why an album of covers?
"The church next to my house in the Scottish village where I live was up for sale. I asked the record company to lend me the money to buy it in return for an album. This is it, and they are mostly first takes. I want to turn the church into a home or a refuge for children in need."
So that's the church in the album title?
Some people find Strange Fruit impossible to sing because those images of black burning flesh are just too overpowering…
"It is the most miserable song I've ever heard, but someone's got to do it. It is unpleasant but it is a story that should be told and re-told, like the Holocaust, because I think there is still a state of undeveloped apartheid in America."
You started off in the folk tradition but you have developed in so many different directions. Was that conscious?
"I do very little by design – it's usually straight from the top. I love all kinds of music. I don't care if it is Portishead or Robert Johnson or Debussy. It either moves you or it doesn't."
1 Glasgow Walker, released a little later 22 May 2000
Material kindly provided by John Neil Munro