Friday, 7 June 2013

Solid Air - John Martyn

Provenance: My parents heard a documentary about John Martyn on the radio and bought the album. I loved it and bought it for my wife. Now it's been subsumed into the collection.

Review: I feel something almost akin to shame when I reflect on the fact that I hadn't heard of John Martyn until the age of 26. It's very possible that I glossed over his name in an article or two but to my discredit I paid absolutely no heed.

As a teenager, I spent far too much time listening to Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and (whisper it) Yngwie Malmsteen. Unless you could rattle off half a million notes on guitar with your fucking tongue or something, I didn't want to know. We all do stupid things when we're young, and mine was listen to shred. Even worse, I would then hold everything else through the prism of shred. Neil Young was a whiner with a band who couldn't play. Roy Orbison was some blind guy that sounded like he was crying all the time. John Martyn didn't exist.

It's all behind me now, though the odd Satch album gets a spin when I'm feeling particularly masochistic. Solid Air, on the other hand, is played on an almost weekly basis.

I was hooked within twenty seconds of pressing play, not least of all because of the extraordinary singing. It managed to be both alluring and alienating, the natural warmth of Martyn's voice undercut by the slurred drawl which renders every other word incomprehensible. The music was no less compelling, a woozy combination of folk and jazz, electric piano riding over finger-picked guitar to glorious effect. One of the real stars of the album is Danny Thompson, whose elastic double-bass playing provides a languid counterpoint to Martyn's flurrying, cascading arepeggios.

Why pick out individual songs? "Over the Hill" is a carefree strummer featuring spiky rhythm mandolin from the great Richard Thompson. "I'd Rather Be the Devil" is a thrilling deconstruction of the haunting Skip James classic, Martyn's Echoplexed guitar spinning notes off into the cosmos. Meanwhile, "Go Down Easy" is a heavy-lidded, seductive slice of minimalism and "May You Never" is sweet without crossing the line into saccharine (though Eric Clapton managed the dubious achievement of rendering it both sickly and soulless. Nice job, Slowhand).

I'm hardly flirting with originality by proclaiming this one of the defining albums of the British folk scene, if not British popular music. It's sublime, and nothing else sounds like it. What else is there to say? Buy it.

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