I remember 2nd February 2005 well - not the whole day, nor even where I was, but simply opening the newspaper. In the Obituary section of The Guardian, on opposing pages, were two pieces about Scottish musicians rooted in folk traditions. One was a craggy ancient from a bygone age, the other was Martyn Bennett, a vibrant young man who had just died of cancer in his early 30s.
For the 20 years since, Martyn and his music has stayed with me, tradition brought into the modern world. He pioneered the use of pipes, fiddles and sampled sounds – maybe scratched vocals from LPs - against drum and bass, and techno beats. He was part of the rave and dance culture, whether playing solo in a pub or on stage, bare-topped and kilted, at Glastonbury or The Cambridge Folk Festival. His love of Scotland – of the travelling life, the myths and uncertainty of times past, of pipes, fiddles and voices: all melded with a dance scene stamp that was charming, troubling, energetic and unique.
And he was a beautiful person – gentle, loving, kind. As his cancer returned, one dark night in despair, he shattered all his instruments – some of which went back decades, even played in first world war trenches. In the months that followed, he created his masterpiece, Grit, made largely with sampled sounds. Martyn, his life and his music have always held me enraptured. He and I could not be further apart in time, in lifestyle, in background… but I feel I understand him. Maybe that is the mark of an artist - to touch, to be unique, to be loved.
A BBC Scotland documentary made about Martyn is my favourite piece of film about music - ever. Joy and darkness. I may have shared this elsewhere before – but no apologies (and nae regrets)…
A beautiful documentary about Martyn Bennett
I went back and listened to the rarest of his recordings, a song cycle made with his mother Margaret (herself a fine traditional singer), called Glenn Lyon. I could not find this on any streaming service, so I listened on CD. It’s way softer than Grit, and his other great album, Bothy Culture. Here’s a little clip of one song from Glenn Lyon…
A rough and odd little video of the gentle but deep album, Glenn Lyon
And if you’re interested here’s the Obituary that so touched me in the first place…
I am drawn to folk music and dark themes – not old murder ballads or clear narratives about anger, jealousy and other forthright emotions. Rather the deep places we go where we might confront or shy away from our fears, the passage of time and our mortality. Maybe Martyn awoke that in me, but its influence has stayed, found in two albums I listened to this month.
You Are Wolf is the pen-name of Kerry Andrew, and I was transfixed by the joy and apprehension of transition. I found their album ‘Hare // Hunter //Moth // Ghost’ contained a unique voice, great samples, haunting melodies and themes of questioning and direction.
An album to stop you in your tracks from You Are Wolf
Similarly John Francis Flynn has produced an earthy set of Irish folk songs (amongst others) and turned them upside down with unusual instrumentation, and forboding treatments. He strikes me as an Irish counterpoint to another of my recent favourite folkies, the American Sam Amidon… restless and always recreating, reimagining.
So if the above hasn't depressed you enough, see how you get on with this!
John Francis Flynn making us a little uneasy
Turning away from Darkness to Joy, two further albums stood out for me this month. The first is good time swing music steeped deep in the American Songbook tradition – Rachael and Vilray (thanks for the recommendation, E!). So refreshingly clever, toe-tapping and knowledgeable about its own roots. Great album!
Light relief from the heaviness before!
And finally - to prove that I’m really not a depressed curmudgeon, my absolute new album of the month just has to be Cory Henry’s stonking funkbuster, Operation Funk. This is one of a slew of albums recommended to me this year by a friend with the most generous heart, gently challenging everything a middle class old white guy with an acoustic guitar is expected to love in music – and every single recommendation has brought me something new and refreshing. This kind of music has kept me going this year!
Funking it up even in a Tiny Desk concert! Give it up for Cory Henry!
- Olivia Rodrigo - SOUR
- Mark Murphy - Midnight Mood
- Marina Herlop - Nekkuja
- Al Jarreau - We Got By
- Jackson C Frank - Jackson C Frank
- Kacey Musgraves - star-crossed
- Marvin Gaye - I Want You
- James Brown - It's A Mother
- Bob Marley & The Wailers - Catch A Fire
- Donald Fagen - Morph The Cat
- Beyonce - Lemonade
- Victoria Monet - Jaguar
- Rachael & Vilray - I Love A Love Song!
- Hiroshi Yashimura - Music for Nine Post Cards
- Shakti - Natural Elements
- Cat Power - Wanderer
- Love - Forever Changes
- Curtis Mayfield - SuperFly
- Nick Lowe - The Convincer
- Natalie Merchant - Keep Your Courage
- Cory Henry - Operation Funk
- Kneebody - Low Electrical Worker
- Dustin O’Halloran - Lumiere
- Balmorhea - All Is Wild, All Is Silent
- Sigur Ros - Agaetis byrjun
- Bee Gees - Main Course
- Bill Laurance - Aftersun
- Marina Tuset - Canto a la Imaginacion
- The Velvet Underground - The Velvet Underground & Nico
- Buffalo Springfield - Buffalo Springfield Again
- Robert Glaspar Experiment - Black Radio
- Madonna - Like a Prayer
- Richard Hawley - Truelove's Gutter
- Catriona Mackay - Starfish
- Martyn Bennett - Glen Lyon
- Michael Hedges - Aerial Boundaries
- John Francis Flynn - Look Over the Wall, See the Sky
- Guided By Voices - Earthquake Glue
- You Are Wolf - hare // hunter // moth // ghost
- Isaiah Collier - Parallel Universe
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