Thursday, May 03, 2007

album of the day

Solid Air by John Martyn.

This is regularly voted, somewhat euphemistically, one of the great "chill-out" albums of all time - what people mean by "great chill-out album", of course, is "great dope-smoking album", and I wouldn't necessarily argue with that. The eponymous opening track, in particular, with its gurgling bass and tinkling keyboard fills and Martyn's trademark slurred, velvety vocals is like sinking into a warm bath. Which is ironic, because it's actually a song of brotherly concern about Martyn's close friend and fellow folkie Nick Drake who (unless the conspiracy theorists are to be believed) took his own life the following year (1974).

Over The Hill and I Don't Want To Know are more orthodox jazzy folk numbers, while the bluesy I'd Rather Be The Devil showcases Martyn's innovative use of the primitive Echoplex echo/delay unit - yes, you could, if you wished to do so, blame John Martyn for the guitar intro to U2's Where The Streets Have No Name; that might be a bit harsh, though. Of the remaining tracks, Go Down Easy, May You Never and The Easy Blues are in the acoustic folkie mode, while Dreams By The Sea and the Man In The Station are in the harsher experimental jazz-folk-blues mode. They're all terrific, though, particularly if you're, hem hem, "chilling out" at the time.

This was the second album (1971's Bless The Weather being the first) in Martyn's purple patch which lasted from about 1971 to 1977 - the others being Inside Out (mind-bending experimental jazz-folk), Sunday's Child (a return to more orthodox orthodox folk songs) and One World (recorded in Jamaica; more pop and reggae-influenced). One World also includes Small Hours, a 9-minute dead slow jazzy improvisation recorded outdoors beside a lake with Canada geese taking off squawking in the background; sounds ghastly but in fact your life is an insubstantial and hollow sham and mockery until you hear it, preferably in a darkened room while, hem hem, etc., "chilling out".

There was a fascinating BBC4 series about musical mavericks and innovators a year or so ago, and one of the programmes was about John Martyn, featuring various clips from his 70's heyday and contemporary interviews as he was about to go into hospital to have his leg amputated below the knee. Fascinating in particular to contrast this programme with the one that immediately followed it about Richard Thompson - Martyn the drink-fuelled maverick and Thompson the ascetic Buddhist (and contributor of mandolin to Over The Hill here). The irony is that a lot of Martyn's output (though not Solid Air, which is actually pretty disciplined in its own way) provokes the wish that he'd apply a bit more discipline and structure to what he's doing, while a lot of Thompson's output (particularly recently) makes you wish he'd let his hair down and unleash the guitar a bit more. I guess you can't have it both ways.

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