Friday, June 13, 2014

Beverley Martyn – The Phoenix and The Turtle / Led Zeppelin / Bob Mould

      In music history there are certain archetype personalities which seem to get recycled even across genres. There are the wild characters like Franz Liszt and Keith Moon. The logic-defying virtuoso types like Paganini, Robert Johnson and Jaco Pastorius. The mad, tortured geniuses like Bud Powell and Skip Spence. The theme of the “tortured artist” is a big one though. Even Todd Rundgren titled one of his albums in mock-honor of this archetype – “The Ever Popular Tortured Artist Effect”.
       Perhaps he did this tongue-in-cheek or maybe he was just having a bad year that year, who knows? Numerous artists have identified some of their best work with some of the worst times in their lives. As if the frequency of life struggles somehow legitimizes the depth of the art. This, of course, can be a dangerous proposition – the notion that artists must “suffer” before they create valid art. Some artists don’t have a choice. Maybe mental or physical illness is part of the artists’ natural makeup, creating tangible challenges they cannot avoid easily. Perhaps these struggles are part of the unique point of view that can give the artists’ expressions a quality of resonance to their audiences.

        This perception of the “tortured artist” does tend to fuel the music press from time to time – especially if there is some connection to an album or two. Witness the fixation of Richard and Linda Thompson’s “Shoot Out The Lights” album – and I don’t even consider it their best, but the press loves the sordid tale of their breakup still! Last year I read a bit of information about the late folk-jazz-rock acoustic guitar pioneer John Martyn. I read that he had a great “breakup album” like Richard Thompson had in his catalog. I tracked down a nice copy of Martyn’s “Grace and Danger” on vinyl.
     While I listened to the record, I did notice that the songs somehow related to the breakup of his marriage, yet there was a strange detachment evident in the performances. If he was distraught I really couldn’t tell. Not a bad album, mind you. Just not what I would have expected. There are, of course, at least two sides to every story. This common wisdom led me to seek out information about his ex-wife Beverley Martyn. At this point there was a website devoted to her which contained large chunks of her life story – segments that were collected in a short but powerful little book she authored called “Sweet Honesty”.

     As I read the excerpts on the website I marveled at what promise her early career as a singer held. She had connections to both English folk-rock icons and American folk-rock icons all before she met John Martyn. In fact, not long after the pair were married, Beverley was booked to record an album in the US in Woodstock, New York in 1969 with folks like Levon Helm and other heavy hitters on the scene. Her husband tagged along (naturally), contributed more than some backing guitar and the record was eventually released as a joint effort. Here’s the result:
     John Martyn would gradually begin an ascent to fame in the English folk-rock circles while Beverley increasingly tended to their growing family. If only it were that simple. John Martyn’s alcoholism overtook his personality in the ensuing years and cycles of abuse took their toll on the marriage. Beverley writes with astonishing candor and clarity about those years and it’s a harrowing story. John Martyn may have emerged as a brilliant musical talent, yet his conduct was truly foul. For me, that eerie detachment on “Grace and Danger” makes a lot more sense in the context of all his personal demons. Astoundingly, John Martyn remained prolific as a composer and performer right up to the end of his life in 2009.

     Beverley spent many years rebuilding the connections to her own art and, as I read last summer, she was readying a new album due to be released in early 2014. Before I even heard a note of her music I immediately pre-ordered the album. I cannot explain why her story moved me so profoundly, but I just knew this was a new record I needed to hear. But I had to wait. In the meantime I tracked down the “Stormbringer” album pictured above. I found a nice white-label promo copy – a really sweet disc!

     Let me mention that Beverley’s vocal style on this early record is wholly unique to any other female singer I’ve heard. Her songwriting style is direct and insightful as well. There’s a wonderful balance between technique and intimacy in her approach that is quite fascinating. I’m still looking for the second LP release from this era – “Road to Ruin”. In fact, there are a few other bits and bobs of her recordings – a few early singles and at least one CD from the 90s – yet her out put has been criminally small compared to the stature of her talent. This makes her new album all the more necessary to hear!
     A few weeks ago my patience paid off and I received – direct from England no less! – a nice autographed copy of the new album on vinyl. Ahhhhh! What a great looking package! Yet, the best of what is here is in the grooves. Now, it is worth noting that Beverley’s voice has changed somewhat, which is only natural with the passage of time. However, what a joy it is to hear how she still moves her voice in unexpected and beautiful ways through the songs. The backing music is tasteful – beautifully recorded and complimenting Beverley’s voice perfectly throughout. Beverley leads the record off with a song she composed with Nick Drake before his untimely death in the 70s – a song called “Reckless Jane”. It sets the mood for the album perfectly – intimate and reflective. I have to say the blues on side one – “Going to Germany” – is a highlight for me. I love the way Beverley sings that blues – in a style rarely heard these days and she owns it! And speaking of the blues, Beverley’s take on the classic “Levee Breaks” is worth the price of admission alone. Not to be missed!

     I can also recommend the book I mentioned above – “Sweet Honesty”. I don’t want to retell any of the fascinating details of her quite amazing life. Her prose is far more effective and there are some wonderful stories along with the heartbreaks. In my opinion, Beverley Martyn’s new LP is right in the same class with Guy Clark’s new album (the one that earned him a Grammy last year). I think it would be fantastic if Clark and Beverley were able to do some shows around the US together. That would be a dream gig for me to see indeed! Do yourself a favor and check out Beverley’s new album – she’s a treasure!

       Fascinating to note the spiffy typeface used on Beverley’s album cover – what I call “Led Zeppelin font” since it was used prominently on their “Houses of the Holy” album. This together with the “Levee Breaks” connection got me thinking about how I’d also ordered the latest Led Zeppelin deluxe LP sets from the UK as well. I had read a lot about major quality discrepancies between domestic (US) copies of reissued albums versus their UK counterparts and for the new Zeppelin platters I didn’t want to take any chances. Oddly enough, each of the three LP sets arrived separately – thankfully all intact with no major problems just like Beverely’s album. Man, ordering vinyl from that far away is a hair-raising proposition just due to the distance alone. So far my luck’s been good in that department.
     And for the new Zep platters I have to say I am quite pleased with the quality of the mastering and the pressing in all cases. Each album is a significant upgrade to the old vinyl I’d had forever and the bonus material is engaging and fun to hear. And, as it happens in this case, all of the records were pressed in Germany anyway so the quality should be excellent no matter what country you order the records from! Really, all new LPs should exhibit the same excellent quality of the Zeppelin reissues and Beverley Martyn’s new album. So I will recommend these as well.
     And finally I have to give the big  thumbs up to the new Bob Mould LP “Beauty and RUIN”. Oh yeah! This is the Bob Mould album we’ve been waiting for kids. Of course Bob is the other major talent from the legendary architects of good alternative rock Husker Du. A few entries ago I gave the nod to the most recent Grant Hart epic “The Argument”. Now it’s Bob Mould’s turn to get the props. I have to be honest, I don’t have all of his solo stuff so I can’t comment on his entire output. But I will say his first LP “Workbook” holds a special place in my heart for a variety of reasons. The new album is going to work its way right up next to it from what I can tell. Plus I got a limited edition colored vinyl copy which I ordered directly from the company Merge Records. I’ve never seen a company move an order out so quickly and efficiently before. I think it took only two days from the time I hit the “buy” button to when it hit my turntable! Good job, Merge people! Plus they threw in a cool poster and a Bob Mould button for my lapel too. Now that is too cool. The music is straight up classic Bob Mould greatness so don’t delay – just get it straight from the source. They will treat you right, friends!

     Ah, so much great inspirational music these days. I’m sure looking forward to the summer months when I can get a little extra listening and reflecting in. As always, keep those vibrations percolating through the atmosphere and spread those good vibes, people! Bright Moments!

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