A beautifully laid-back folk album with more experimental touches of blues and jazz, Bless The Weather was John Martyn's third solo album (fifth if you include two albums with wife Beverley) and his best to date. Featuring a stellar cast of musicians such as Richard Thompson, Danny Thompson (bass), and Ian Whiteman (keyboards), the album has a soothing, melancholic vibe that I find endlessly listenable and appealing. Tracks such as "Go Easy," "Just Now," and "Back Down The River" are utterly lovely and show that Martyn could sing quite prettily, while the brooding, intense title track and the hookily singable but reflective love ballad "Head and Heart" show what an excellent guitar player he was. The evocative "Let The Good Things Come" (with Beverley on backing vocals) and the long, jazzy, interestingly chaotic instrumental "Glistening Glyndebourne" see Martyn using his soon to be trademark Echoplex, and only "Sugar Lump," a not bad but badly misplaced blues that briefly ruins the flow of the album, interrupts the summery goodness. Perhaps "Walk On The Water" kinda comes and goes, but in an altogether pleasant way (Martyn's songs often featured cool percussion and this song is a fine example of that), while his unexpected cover of "Singin' In The Rain" provides a too short but perfectly charming finale. On the whole, this album is more pure folk, less jazzy, and less adventurous than his next album, Solid Air, which many regard as his masterpiece. But while I agree that due to its more distinctive nature Solid Air is probably the better album, I listen to Bless The Weather more, and this low-key gem remains an underacknowledged classic of its kind.
Solid Air (Island ’73) Rating: A
Although he’s long been a respected name on the English folk scene (members of Fairport Convention play on this album and he was a friend/peer of Nick Drake), John Martyn deserves to be better known by the public at large. Martyn has a warm, husky voice, considerable guitar playing skills, and the songwriting talent to match, and his uniquely eclectic brand of jazz and blues tinged folk rock hasn’t aged a day since Solid Air (generally considered Martyn’s best album) was first released. This albums first three songs are effortlessly great. The title track features tinkly late night keyboards (whereas Bless The Weather is a summery day time album to me, the majority of this one works more as a late night mood album), acoustic guitar, jazzy bass (mainstay Danny Thompson again), and sultry sax, but above all it's Martyn’s slurred vocals (introduced here but soon to become a trademark) that make the song such a standout. An at times monotonously repetitive mood piece, the song nevertheless evokes quite a haunting mood, and the lyrics in tribute to Drake pack an emotional punch given Drake’s sad passing soon afterwards. The much lighter “Over The Hill,” which could’ve easily been a hit single, is in fact very Drake-like but is more upbeat, airy, and catchy, plus Martyn’s deeper voice is less distinctive than Drake's, while the slinky, smoky voodoo melody of “Don’t Want To Know” easily insinuates itself into your brain, helped along by its memorable catchphrase (“I don’t want to know about evil, I only wanna know about love”). Though those frontloaded songs are the albums clear highlights to me along with “May You Never,” an easy going, delightfully sincere and gentle love song later covered by Eric Clapton (Martyn's version is much better), there are several other fine songs as well. For example, there’s “Go Down Easy,” a simple but effectively stripped down blues-based acoustic ballad with a homespun front porch feel, and “The Man In The Station,” another low-key, late night mood piece with whispery vocals, though it has its louder sections as well. Alas, whereas Bless The Weather mostly stuck to mellower folksy stuff, Solid Air saw Martyn branching out into more rock and blues-based material, which doesn't always work to his advantage (he was certainly a more diverse artist than Drake, who in his brief career simply stuck to what he did best). He sounds like a man possessed on the highly percussive, harsh, menacing “I’d Rather Be The Devil” (a 6+ minute Skip James cover), while "Dreams By The Sea” is notable for its loud, funky, highly rhythmic, sax enhanced groove. Though impressive songs, they impede the "chill out" vibe of the rest of the record (actually, the second half of "I'd Rather Be The Devil" fits that description as well), and I'm not a huge fan of the rough-hewn blues “Jelly Roll Blues,” in part due to its ridiculous “I’m so wild about your jelly roll” lyrics, though I like the last minute of the song (the part titled “Gentle Blues,” as technically the song, officially titled "The Easy Blues," is a two part medley comprised of “Jelly Roll Blues” and “Gentle Blues”). You see, many of these songs shift directions unexpectedly, which keeps things interesting and makes at least parts of every song enjoyable, though the stylistic shifts can also be a bit disorienting at times. Still, this complaint amounts to a nitpick given the exceedingly high overall quality of these songs, and the warm, spacious production (by John Wood, who also worked with Drake) also adds to the album’s agreeably atmospheric ambiance. In short, fans of Richard Thompson and Nick Drake would be wise to investigate Solid Air, another great if overlooked gem of an album.
Inside Out (Island ’73) Rating: B+
Supported by Traffic's Steve Winwood and Chris Wood, saxophonist Bobby Keys, and percussionists Remi Kabaka and Kesh Sethie, in addition to Danny Thompson as per usual, this quickly recorded follow up is Martyn's most experimental and jazziest release to date. Although overshadowed by Solid Air, his signature work released earlier that same year, this was another fine album on which his Echoplex guitar sound really comes to the forefront, though it's certainly more difficult to appreciate than his prior two efforts and it's not without significant flaws. My main problem with this album is that Martyn goes overboard with his bluesy, slurred vocal style, which starts to feel like a tiresome (and annoying) gimmick, and I'd also argue that individual songs stand out from the pack less this time out. Personally, I prefer mellow Martyn so some of the more idiosyncratic and rocking songs here (like the nearly 9-minute "Outside In") take some getting used to, but Inside Out is a grower album with some very good tunes ("Fine Lines," "Ain't No Saint," "Make No Mistake," and "So Much In Love With You" come immediately to mind) and consistently impressive and innovative guitar playing (the traditional instrumental "Eibhli Ghail Chiun Chearbhail" is a good example of this). It's not an album I'll ever play as often as my favorite Martyn albums, but it's intense, hypnotic charms are inviting on a once in a while basis.
Sunday's Child (Island ’75) Rating: A-
A more straightforward, song-based, folk-infused collection, the comparatively unheralded Sunday's Child was another enjoyable and consistent collection. The melodic opener "One Day Without You" and the sweetly singable ballad (that's Beverley on backing vocals again) "My Baby Girl" sound like hits that never were, while sparse, unadorned numbers like "Lay It All Down," the utterly lovely traditional ballad "Spencer the Rover," and the prettily crooned country standard "Satisfied Mind" are other standouts. Although I tend to like mellow, straightforward Martyn best, on the more electrified, experimental front you have the funky, far out "Root Love" and the also-funky riff-fest "Clutches," while the intense, bluesy title track and the haunting, "Solid Air"-like "You Can Discover" are also highly worthwhile. Perhaps some of these songs are on the short side, "The Message" kind of comes and goes, and as per usual I wish that he would've better enunciated his vocals on some songs. Saving the most ambitious song for last, "Call Me Crazy" (7:32) is a hypnotic mood piece with inventive, prominent percussion, plus its extended fadeout is quite gorgeous. All in all, it provides a fine ending to a very good album.
One World (Island '77) Rating: A
After what was back then a long delay came One World, which to me is another stellar late night mood album a la Solid Air. It’s perhaps a little less essential, but I consider this to be Martyn’s last truly great album. Again maybe Martyn’s smoky vocals can be overly slurred, the lyrics on the whole are slightly below Martyn’s highest standards, and I’m not really a fan of the almost 7-minute long “Big Muff.” But most of this album is excellent, though perhaps its hard to categorize mix of folk, blues, jazz, and even dub is what made it more of a hit with critics than the buying public (as was the case with much of Martyn’s career output). Enhanced by contributions from many session musicians, most notably Steve Winwood on various instruments (bass, electric piano, Moog synthesizer, organ), the album also sees Martyn make liberal use of his Echoplex guitar technique, as on the hypnotic title track, a mellow highlight here along with the gorgeously romantic love ballad “Couldn’t Love You More” and the ambient 9-minute closer “Small Hours,” which apparently was recorded outdoors which gives it a certain ambiance. The funky “Dealer” begins the proceedings, and “Smiling Stranger” is notable for its cool gurgling groove and creative embellishments (strings, table, saxophone), while “Certain Surprise” delivers gentle jazz pop with more strings and a surprisingly prominent trombone, and “Dancing” is in fact danceable though it grooves along in a decidedly low-key way. Several of the aforementioned songs could’ve been hits with a bit of luck, for this is an album whose songs are agreeably accessible yet (generally speaking) far from straightforward, which makes for a very interesting overall mix.
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