John Martyn Hums And Hovers
By John Piccarella
Like many folksingers in the '60s, John Martyn experimented with a lyrical contemporary chamber music. Although less poetic than masterworks of the genre such as Van Morrison's Astral Weeks or Tim Buckley's Blue Afternoon, Martyn's albums combine folk gentility, jazzy improvisation, and a surprising funk. The songs, which are mostly about love and sex, exhibit the advantage that folk music sometimes has over rock and roll: the blunt emotive impact of confession over rhetoric. It is this peculiar power that Dylan merged with electric instruments, vocals coming on desperate and naked over a music that is all swagger and balls. In Martyn's case, the shameless romance of his singing is balanced by his own tough-minded guitar style that explores the wide range of tonal possibilities inherent in an acoustic instrument amplified and modified by various electronic devices.
Martyn has always reminded me of Tim Buckley - his jazz experimentalism (especially his affinity for acoustic bass players), his drunken vocals, his obsessively romantic content. Like Buckley's, Martyn's voice spills from a hoarse falsetto through a swooning bass; he slurs words like an infant. Yet he is a more accessible eccentric. His lyrics lack the hallucinogenic brilliance of Buckley lyricist Larry Beckett (the most accomplished verbal genius that the rock press has ever ignored), or the candid lustfulness of Buckley's own lyrics, but he also avoids the strained intensity of Buckley's style, which makes him easier to listen to. His newest album, One World, achieves a blend of the commercial and the avant garde that reflects the ambition of its title.
I first heard John Martyn opening for Yes in 1973, the same year that he released his two best albums: Solid Air and Inside Out. The latter, with three instrumental tracks, is the closest Martyn has ever come to making a real guitar record. He had then perfected the acoustic-electric guitar technique featured in his concert performances. At first, the sight of his acoustic guitar brought groans from the thousands of acid-drenched Yesheads. Seated alone in a huge armchair, Martyn sloshed down several beers, talked incoherently, and rolled his eyes as if he were seeing more of God than Jerry Garcia ever had. But when he started playing, his amplified guitar, run through an echo unit and something like a Fripp pedalboard, whipped Hendrix-like wah-washes in quadraphonic circles around the hall. After about 20 minutes he was gone and Yes, with their fog machine and flying drum kit, were all anticlimax. But maybe we took the acid too soon. A very similar performance brought a mixed response from the sold-out Nassau Coliseum at Eric Clapton's recent concert.
The typical response from those who listen is an astonished 'How does he do that?' In concert, I think Martyn uses a rhythm box in combination with the various percussive effects that he smacks out of his hollow wooden instrument. On record he uses Traffic percussionists Remi Kabaka and Kesh Sathie as well as Pentangle bass virtuoso Danny Thompson to construct bubbling polyrhythmic currents reminiscent of Eno's radioactive-jungle tracks. Dealer and Big Muff, which open and close side two of One World, are made of the same electro-funk that pervades the first side of Before And After Science. The title cut is a slow vocalise barely sustained by a drippy Manzanera-like guitar landscape. Small Hours, as its title suggests, is something of an Eno lullaby, but Steve Winwood plays like a lazy Jan Hammer disciple and wrecks the mood.
Some of the concessions that Martyn makes to commercial prettiness, like the Joni Mitchellish strings on Certain Surprise and some Jamaican tinkly-shit orchestrations, sound like they were sneaked on when Martyn wasn't listening. Their effect is inappropriate to the dreamy ambience that Martyn has developed over 10 albums. But the virtue of Chris Blackwell's production is that it skillfully juggles Martyn's idiosyncrasies together with these moments of schlock. With the buoyancy of an airship, this album hums and hovers without roaring into catastrophe or dropping too quietly into the deep.
This review of One World (with some extras) was published in The Village Voice of 1 May 1978, in the Riffs section on page 54.