John Would Love This Too
It would be impossible trying, and wrong as well, to divorce the indelible songcraft of John Martyn from the quality of performance in those who cover any of his songs. And there is solid evidence of how covers of Martyn’s glorious songs over the years resonate from their inherent excellence and memorable sound: an obvious example would be the 2011 compilation Johnny Boy Would Love This….A Tribute to John Martyn; and if you go on YouTube there is an abundance of recorded/live versions of his songs by a wide range of artists and interpretations that have at their core attraction the Martyn melodies before we get to the cover nuances.
Sarah Jane Morris and Tony Rémy surely earn an endearing and enduring place in that lineage of covering John Martyn with their distinctive album Sweet Little Mystery. I say ‘distinctive’ in that very context of Martyn’s central place – always – in versions as outlined above: Rémy’s precise yet varied guitar work and Morris’ deep, powerful vocal establish themselves throughout the portrayals of a range of Martyn’s songs, from his early sweetness to later jazz sass.
Opener Fairytale Lullaby presents these in its perfect, simple essence – acoustic guitar and voice unified on the melodic line. This is followed by an orchestral Couldn’t Love You More where an expansive sweep of sound rides this beautiful expression of love. I can imagine those uncertain at the orchestrating, down to the 60s horn swathes a la Herb Albert and female pop chorus, but it works.
The big test for me is third Head and Heart, my favourite all-time Martyn song. Again Rémy begins with guitar picking out the melodic line until Morris joins on to it with a force that carries conviction and empathy. It breaks to a percussive and bass-led instrumental that again works, especially when Morris rejoins at this increased pace, the slight funk taking the song to a new place that asserts the promise in its lyric/title: love me with your head / love me with your heart, again and again, Rémy riding this out in a controlled, tight solo.
Call Me is Morris sultry and soulful, Rémy soloing with acoustic precision. Over the Hill – what a sublime selection – is again funked-up [so to speak], certainly an upbeat take on what is a ‘folk’ classic in Martyn’s early work, this version introducing a gospel-esque tangent, the female chorus rousing in its climbs. Superb.
Then it’s Solid Air, so fan expectations will be high, whether that is the hyper-stalwart anticipating failure; others perhaps demanding a fidelity that misunderstands the purpose of interpretation, or, like me, just waiting for more of this perfect homage. Morris is in fulsome vocal here, emotive and inflected slightly in that way Martyn began to vocalise instrumentally, and deeply mimetic on You’ve been getting too deep. Rémy’s guitar is yet again precise and controlled, the bass line throbbing the drive onwards. The song ends on a long adamant repeat You’ve been walking your line / you’d better walk in your line that Morris growls menacingly/passionately at the final.
One World is again funked-up jazz-cool. And it’s always the song shining, but without question this interpretive take also glows. The title track is adorned with some organ, and Morris yet again occupies the centre with such a soulful singing. By this stage you become aware of just how much light has been shed on these songs, this essentially about the darkness of being alone and yearning for a past long gone. And the illumination isn’t incongruous, surprisingly perhaps, having been the default throughout.
Did I suggest light, and upbeatness! Well, May You Never gets a Free-esque [Andy Fraser] cover, and I love it, this Martyn anthem strutting its bar room fights and behind your back dirty talking. Penultimate Carmine is a fine rocking take, Morris making musical mischief in the title’s name and lyric, turning turning the screw into a playground chant that rolls out to a scorching guitar.
Closer I Don’t Wanna Know is the song I first heard from these two a while back. I remember being excited and complimentary then about the homage so clearly heartfelt as well as independent and creative. Here horns again burst out the love, and a chorus sings the soul of the song’s mantra. Rémy on another scorching solo never apes Martyn’s playing on the whole collection and that has been such a good call, Morris reminding in more vocal squeals the muscular impact she brings to bear on so many of these originally acoustic and sombre songs.
If a John Martyn fan I think you owe it to yourself and his memory to get this excellent, vibrant and honest tribute. And of course get it if you like great songs brilliantly performed. I ordered my copy here.
Other of my John Martyn reviews, including Johnny Boy... here