John Martyn Tribute Album Wildly Uneven


John Martyn: Johnny Boy Would Love This

Liason Music 4012

* * ½

John Martyn (1948-2009) was certainly one of the more important songwriters of the past 60 years. He was also one of the most versatile; he wrote songs that thrilled fans of various genres: pop, rock, folk, jazz, blues…. It seemed as if every other review of his songs included the phrase “defies categorization.” Like Joni Mitchell, Martyn’s favorite project was reinventing himself. As a result, he never lingered long in the limelight, but among other songwriters he commanded a reverence bordering on legend.

The intent behind Johnny Boy Would Love This is to honor Martyn’s eclecticism. Thirty different artists headed to the studio to record his songs and, appropriately, they are from various musical genres. The result? Well… Johnny boy might have indeed loved it, but most listeners will, at best, find it a stronger concept than album. My own take is that it would have made one terrific disc, but at two it’s exceedingly uneven.

The odd choices begin immediately in that the second disc is much stronger than the first, a curious marketing decision given that most DJs and reviewers are likely to spin whatever comes first in the rotation. In like fashion, the opening track of David Gray singing “Let the Good Things Come” is so moody that we expect ominous rather than joyful things. It’s an interesting track, though, which cannot be said for the histrionic soul of Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler on “Glorious Fool.” This, I fear, is a metaphor for the entire project: good tracks amidst mediocre ones. Among the latter, Beck’s competent but forgettable “Stormbringer,” Syd Kitchen’s calpso-meets-pop “Fine Lines,” the faux soul of Nicholas Barron on “Angeline,” the noisy train wreck a band called On My God makes of “John Wayne,” and the unforgiveable sonic mush to which Vashti Bunyan reduces Martyn’s classic “Head and Heart.” I’m not overly fond of Beth Orton’s “Go Down Easy,” either, but I confess I find her so overrated than I’m biased on that one.

Among the good stuff, Snow Patrol’s shimmery “May You Never,” which features Gary Lightbody’s expressive vocals; the psychedelic/bluegrass tinged “Run Honey Run” by Morchebba; Bombay Bicycle club’s evocation of Donovan on “Fairytale Lullaby;” and Julie Tzuke’s well-done pop/soul rendition of “Hurt in Your Heart.” The album closes with Phil Collins covering “Tearing and Breaking,” another highlight. The Collins track ought to serve notice to pop-wannabes not to shop at thrift stores. Until you can fill the stage with an army of harmony singers and musicians, don’t try to construct thick arrangements. Overall, this collection works better when it keeps things simple, and founders when complexity overwhelms the songs. Half good/half lamentable--hence 2.5 stars of five.

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