By ERIC SHEPARD
Special to The Journal-News
John Martyn got lost in the shuffle. He recorded his first album for Island Records in 1967. London Conversation sounds a bit dated now, but for a record done by an eighteen year-old singer-songwriter two years before James Taylor broke with Sweet Baby James, it not only presaged a wave of folk-inspired performers, but holds up as well as most of Taylor's stuff.
The follow-up, The Tumbler, is even better, with Martyn adding country blues to his more traditional folk tendencies. Over his next seven albums, Martyn experimented with jazz and electronics, developing a singular blend of all of these strains. Through two fine collaborations with his wife Beverley, a limited edition live LP and the rest, Martyn never released a weak album. Solid Air and Bless The Weather are particularly strong, with Martyn's best writing and most consistent performance. After a three-year layoff, Martyn returned in 1978 with One World. It featured a lot of Steve Winwood's keyboards, moody tunes and some of Martyn's least accessible,1 but not unsuccessful music.
Talking around Martyn's music is a lot easier than trying to describe it. It's less about lyrics, vocals and instrumental tracks than it is about textures. Solid Air may be the most aptly titled album ever recorded, as it reached for and achieved an aural approximation of the images suggested by the title.
One man's eclectic is another's dilletante, however, and Martyn's multifaceted work might cause a careless listener to write him off as aimless or uneven. But attention to detail will invariably uncover strong bass lines, precise drumming and vocal, guitar and keyboard work that is intriguing rather than indulgent. As a lyricist, Martyn's concerns are often personal, but rarely selfish.
Martyn has just released Grace & Danger. Recorded with Tommy Eyre on keyboards (an original member of Mark-Almond), bassist John Giblin and ex-Genesis member Phil Collins, the album, though it contains frustratingly little acoustic guitar, meanders less than One World and may be as close to Solid Air as Martyn will allow himself to go at this stage. The opening cut, Some People Are Crazy, creates very similar weaves. The title track includes some of Martyn's best, most directed electric playing and provides an example of understated drive as opposed to the trampling beat offered by most current rock. Direct references to blues and folk are all but gone, but the title track and Sweet Little Mystery aren't without some connection to those forms.
With Johnny Too Bad Martyn accomplishes with reggae what he did with blues on I'd Rather Be The Devil years back. He finds his own wrinkle. Martyn nearly outdoes Van Morrison on Lookin' On and several other tracks, with similar use of repetition and vocal games. Sweet Little Mystery sounds very similar to some of the tunes John recorded with Beverley and just may include her presence, though Collins is credited with the background vocals.2 Hurt In Your Heart and Baby Please Come Home wallow a bit, but the quirky Save Some For Me and the stunning Our Love which follow and close the album make up for the weaker moments.
John Martyn has released 12 albums in 14 years. Each has a lot to offer and, taken together, the albums represent an impressively varied and sustained body of work. Only Grace & Danger, One World and a best-of collection, So Far So Good are currently available in the states. Island Records has never been big on promotion and though Martyn toured with Eric Clapton a few years back, he's only made limited appearances in this country. If you can hunt up Solid Air or Bless The Weather in the import bins, they're worth the extra money. If not, So Far So Good will give you a fair representation of Martyn's work and One World will pique your interest. Regardless, pick up Grace & Danger, before it too goes out of print.
1 No idea what he's talking about.
2 If this had been about My Baby Girl from Sunday's Child, the reviewer would have been right.
This extensive American review was published in The Journal News (White Plains, New York), Friday 20 March 1981.