Johnny boy John Martyn, reviewed in Phantom TollboothThis very generous tribute catches the nuances of Martyn’s style.

Label: Hole in the Rain Music
Time: 30 tracks / 66 mins + DVD: 66 mins.

John Martyn was famous for being the first white act signed to the Island label, for liking unhealthy substances and for his sometimes difficult temperament. The DVD part of this tribute acknowledges these, but the package concentrates on the music and largely succeeds in conveying a sense of Martyn’s unique style.

Musically, Martyn’s appeal is largely down to his innovative use of Echoplex, his distinctive, slurred manner of singing and his idiosyncratic playing style.

Disc 1 is patchy. Joe Bonamassa’s brief, bouncy blues excursion “The Easy Blues” sits next to Cheryl Wilson’s gorgeous facsimile of the slurred shuffle “You Can Discover,” which in turn follows Skye’s ethereal “Solid Air.” This disc features the most established big names (Paulo Nutini, David Gray, Clarence Fountain, Beck and Robert Smith alongside newer artists like Lisa Hannigan and The Swell Season). This is also where you find Martyn’s own sound filtering through more.

Disc 2 is on another level. More cohesive and vibey throughout, this is the one that will get played most. Snow Patrol start it off with a version of the classic “May You Never” that both captures Martyn’s phrasing but adds a distinctive Snow Patrol arrangement. Beth Orton and The Bombay Bicycle Club maintain the chill until Vashti Bunyan lays her Moya Brennan voice over some Anthony Phillips-style guitar. Then Syd Kitchen brings a sinuous, body-swaying South African feel to “Fine Line.” It spotlights some snake-like bass work and this is one of the few tracks to pick up on this feature of Martyn’s recording – Danny Thompson was a regular sidesman.

On go the treats, as there is only one dud track in the first eleven (Nicholas Barron’s over-long “Angeline,” which feels dreary compared with the inventive treatments dished up all around it).

It’s a shame that this disc peters out at the end (Phil Collins doing, well, that Phil Collins thing, and Brendan Campbell dragging out “Anna” – what is it about the tracks with girls’ names on this album?). The Black Ships’ blurry, fuzzy, eight-minute “Rope Soul’d” sounds like the inside of Martyn’s head after his tenth beer.  

The second disc particularly telescopes Martyn’s whole career in that several times the singers pick up the feel of the original Island label – a touch of Traffic here, some Dr. Strangely Strange there – but the whole has a far more up-to-date sheen, thanks to artists like Morcheeba bringing out their own tricks.

The DVD is more about the tribute project than it is about Martyn himself. There is only the sketchiest biography, but plenty of impressions by the artists of the man and his music. It mainly features the producer and lesser-known names. David Gray makes an appearance, Cheryl Wilson gets quite emotional as she speaks about Martyn, but the Becks and Bonamassas don’t bother turning up.

The disc ends with four song videos: three from this collection and a piece of a live show, with a cheery Martyn playing “Cocaine Lil.”

The whole package both brings out the John Martynness of his songs, as artists often copy his phrasing, mood or guitar style, but it also shines light at a new angle on these titles, which include just about all the ones you expect.


Derek Walker