Artists who contributed to the new John Martyn tribute album had a lot of options when choosing a track to cover; Martyn released twenty albums during his forty-plus year career. Thirty artists covered a song from Martyn’s expansive catalog to create Johnny Boy Would Love This: A Tribute to John Martyn. The British singer-songwriter, best known for his unique style on guitar, had a career that spanned genres from folk to jazz to rock and his music touched artists old and new. We previewed contributions from Beck, David Gray, and others earlier this month; now the complete album is available.
The remarkable scope of Johnny Boy Would Love This is an asset in that the album offers a rich, diverse group of tracks from well-respected artists. However, similarities between many tracks give the feeling that the collection could have been more carefully curated. Both discs are disproportionately populated with gentle, introspective covers; all the tracks respectfully pay tribute to Martyn, but not all offer something unique to the collection. There are, however, a selection of standouts among the thirty songs that make Johnny Boy Would Love This a worthwhile purchase for Martyn fans.
The best tracks on the two discs come from a mix of veterans and newcomers in a variety of genres. British folk-rockers Bombay Bicycle Club offer a delicate, carefully harmonized acoustic take on “Fairytale Lullaby,” and Ted Barnes and Gavin Clark successfully continue the bluegrass trend with an airy cover of “Over the Hill.” Phil Collins, who collaborated with Martyn on Grace and Danger and Glorious Fool, pays tribute to his old friend with a dynamic take on “Tearing and Breaking.” Paolo Nutini offers an uncharacteristically slow-burning interpretation of “One World” that succeeds on the merits of his raspy vocals, while Bombay Bicycle Club’s fellow folk-rockers The Emperors of Wyoming infuse “Bless the Weather” with a refreshingly gritty country twang.
Several artists successfully incorporate a bluesy influence into their contributions. Joe Bonamassa’s take on “The Easy Blues” is one of the most fun covers on the compilation, tripping over the track with a jaunty, old fashioned rhythm. Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler take a similar approach to “Glorious Fool,” adding a just a hint of gospel influence.
Two final noteworthy tracks come from a pair of very different artists– The Swell Season and Cure frontman Robert Smith. Swell Season’s Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová bring their trademark bittersweet harmonies to “I Don’t Wanna Know,” crafting one of the most moving tracks on the album. Smith stays true to his roots with a cover of “Small Hours” that finds the song awash with echoes.
Most of the remaining covers that fill out the collection are inoffensive if unremarkable. One of the biggest letdowns is Beck’s arrangement of “Stormbringer;” it’s a very tame offering from the musical chameleon. Vetiver’s “Go Easy” and Vashti Bunyan’s “Head and Heart” suffer from a similar lack of notable qualities. Beth Orton gets halfway to a great cover with her smoky vocals on “Go Down Easy,” but the rest of the track is too bland to showcase them effectively. Snow Patrol opens disc two with a melodic but slightly mopey “May You Never” that isn’t as sharp as some of the pieces that follow.
Out of the thirty tracks that comprise Johnny Boy Would Love This, only a scant few are true misses. Sabrina Dinan’s “Certain Surprise” has an unpleasant elevator jazz flavor that makes it a strange outlier in the collection. Similarly, Nicholas Barron’s take on “Angeline” would be better off without its cheesy sax solo.
Overall, Johnny Boy Would Love This is well worth a listen, especially for Martyn fans. The diversity and scope of the artists who contributed to the record make it remarkable even if some tracks fade into the background, while the moments that do stand out are a fine tribute to Martyn’s musical legacy.
Johnny Boy Would Love This Tracklist:
01. David Gray – Let the Good Things Come
02. Clarence Fountain and Sam Butler (formerly The Blind Boys of Alabama) – Glorious Fool
03. Robert Smith – Small Hours
04. Beck – Stormbringer
05. Ted Barnes f. Gavin Clark – Over the Hill
06. The Swell Season – I Don’t Wanna Know
07. The Emperors of Wyoming – Bless the Weather
08. Lisa Hannigan – Couldn’t Love You More
09. Vetiver – Go Easy
10. Skye Edwards – Solid Air
11. Cheryl Wilson – You Can Discover
12. Joe Bonamassa – The Easy Blues
13. Sonia Dada – Dancing
14. Sabrina Dinan – Certain Surprise
15. Paolo Nutini – One World
01. Snow Patrol – May You Never
02. Beth Orton – Go Down Easy
03. Bombay Bicycle Club – Fairytale Lullaby
04. Syd Kitchen – Fine Lines
05. Vashti Bunyan – Head and Heart
06. Morcheeba f. Bradley Burgess – Run Honey Run
07. Nicholas Barron – Angeline
08. John Smith – Walk to the Water
09. Judie Tzuke – Hurt in Your Heart
10. Jim Tullio – Road to Ruin
11. Oh My God – John Wayne
12. The Blackships – Rope Soul’d
13. Ultan Conlon – Back to Stay
14. Brendan Campbell – Anna
15. Phil Collins – Tearing and Breaking