Various Artists - Johnny Boy Would Love This… A Tribute to John Martyn - Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Various Artists - Johnny Boy Would Love This… A Tribute to John Martyn

by Rich Morris Rating:6 Release Date:2011-08-15

John Martyn was something of a contradiction as an artist: a raging, booze-soaked bull of a man who specialised in vulnerable folk and blues, velvety jazz and near-horizontal ambient soundscapes. Yet behind even his gentlest music was a a darkness which balanced its chilled-out tenancies. For example, 'Solid Air', probably his greatest work, appears to be about helping a friend experiencing cannabis-induced psychosis once you decipher the typically slurred words.

It's no surprise then that the artists who have the most success covering Martyn's music on this compilation are the once who manage to tap into that raw, aching pain beneath the great man's languid arrangements. Those that come a cropper are the ones who would have difficulty recognising a dark undertow even if it swept them away. David Gray, for instance, kicks things off with a respectable version of 'Let the Good Things Come' but his reedy voice is too self-absorbed to do the lyrics justice, completely lacking Martyn's after-hours humanity.

Snow Patrol, meanwhile, unsurprisingly fail to get to grips with the nuances of 'May You Never', delivering it as a sickly, anaemic lullaby, clearly not grasping that what gives the song its edge is that the singer has committed every misdemeanour he's praying his son will avoid. Towards the end, the talentless bastards even contrive to turn the song into one of their patented iPhones-aloft dirges. It's fucking hideous, as is Paolo Nutini's cod-reggae version of 'One World' which sounds like Sting.

Lis Hannigan is one of those 'kooky girl with the voice of an asthmatic child' singers which means that her version of 'Couldn't Love You More' is utterly redundant, sounding, as it does, like she's singing it to her teddy bear or the Björk albums she's ripping off. Elsewhere, Bombay Bicycle Club's 'Fairytale Lullaby' sounds like it belongs on one of those modern adverts which are all about cuddles and daisy chains and smug 30-something hipsters smiling dumbly at each other as they stroke some shiny new bit of tech in a rural setting. I hate those adverts. I also hate Phil Collins. Collins was, of course, a collaborator of Martyn's, lending his drum skills to Grace and Danger and Glorious Fool, the latter of which marked the beginning of his MOR, full-band period. Collins' cover of 'Tearing and Breaking Down' rounds off the compilation. It sounds like Phil Collins.

On to the better stuff: Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler locate a bluesy, soulful feel which works well on 'Glorious Fool'; Robert Smith manages to make 'Small Hours' sound exactly like a Cure song (no bad thing), and Beck delivers a mini-masterpiece with a mature and heartfelt reading of 'Stormbringer'. Skye Edwards does well with her cover of 'Solid Air', turning it into a spectral blues-country mope-fest. It's not as good as the original, obviously, but she deserves full marks for effort. She even manages to work in a sexy/creepy coda, which just proves she really understands the song. Long-time Martyn devotee Beth Orton also gets where 'Go Down Easy' is coming from, and she turns in a bluesy, wintery version which taps into the original's bruised emotion. Vashti Bunyan, a contemporary of Martyn, pulls off a similar trick on 'Head and Heart' which is as intangible and comforting as rain on a windowpane.

Then there are the versions which are just... fine. Since this compilation is a whopping 27 tracks long, there're a lot of these and most of them just make you want to listen to the original tracks. The Swell Season's 'I Don't Wanna Know' is pretty good but a little overblown, which makes you appreciate how well Martyn exercised restraint in his music, something which also goes for The Emprerors of Wyoming's strained reading of 'Bless the Weather'. Vetiver's version of 'Go Easy' is likeable, if a bit boring, as is Cheryl Wilson's tasteful rendering of 'You Can Discover' and Sabrina Dinan's bossa nova take on 'Certain Surprise'.

So, overall, a very mixed bag. There's some good stuff here but nothing really essential for John Martyn fans. However, if you're a serious fan of Beck, Beth Orton or Vashti Bunyan then I would recommend hunting down their contributions.

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