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New Sounds of Olde England History keeps repeating itself on Carbeth (Honest Jon’s), the intoxicating debut album by Trembling Bells. The English-Scottish quartet essentially revive an earlier revival: the rediscovery and amplification, in the Sixties and early Seventies, of traditional British balladry and country-dance tunes. In pub-hymn melodies like ”˜Seven Years a Teardrop’ and the […]

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David Fricke Jun 21, 2009
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New Sounds of Olde England

History keeps repeating itself on Carbeth (Honest Jon’s), the intoxicating debut album by Trembling Bells. The English-Scottish quartet essentially revive an earlier revival: the rediscovery and amplification, in the Sixties and early Seventies, of traditional British balladry and country-dance tunes. In pub-hymn melodies like ”˜Seven Years a Teardrop’ and the hearth-choir blend of ale-fed male hurrah and Lavinia Blackwall’s righteous-damsel singing, the band ”“ founded by avant-rock drummer Alex Neilson (he has played with Current 93 and Six Organs of Admittance, among others) ”“ abides by the ruling echoes of Fairport Convention and Pentangle. The Bells also take a wide view of that antiquity, incorporating Renaissance brass music, medieval drone and acid-flecked rock. Jubilant mischief ensues in ”˜The End Is the Beginning Born Knowing’ (the Incredible String Band as an incredible garage band) and the steam-engine-Led Zeppelin freakout in the centre of ”˜I Took to You (Like Christ to Wood).’ There is robust beauty, too. ”˜Garlands of Stars’ is a rattling bouquet of shooting-star guitars, lusty trombone and Blackwall’s arcing voice, driven by Neilson’s tidal drumming. The folk roots still show, but in fresh air.

Remembering John Martyn

There are many ways to celebrate the progressive-folk invention and improvising sorcery of the British singer-guitarist John Martyn, who died on 29 January at age 60: the moving, precocious detail of his playing on 1967’s London Conversation and 1968’s The Tumbler; Martyn’s growling despair and echo-laden folk-jazz fusion on the 1973 masterpieces Solid Air and Inside Out; the frank heartbreak in his melodies and smoky vocal performances on the 1980 divorce-songs album Grace & Danger. Released shortly before his passing, the 2008 four-CD retrospective Ain’t No Saint: 40 Years of John Martyn (Island UK) is a peculiar overview: divided into two studio and two live discs, with more than half of the 61 tracks originally unreleased. The studio half of the set touches on every essential era, although the emphasis on rarities may flummox beginners. The version here of ”˜Solid Air’ ”“ Martyn’s greatest song, written for his troubled friend Nick Drake ”“ is not the perfect haunting from the original album but an early uncompelling sketch. Yet there are revelations. The 10-minute instrumental outtake of ”˜Small Hours,’ from the 1977 album One World, is magnificent suspense: Martyn playing elegant soft-exhale phrases on electric guitar in deep reverb. And the Seventies concert recordings on Disc Three capture Martyn in his youthful, exploring prime (a stark acoustic extension of ”˜Bless the Weather’ from 1973, the spaced-jazz charge and effects-pedal mayhem of ”˜Outside In’ in 1975). Also from that era and recommended: On Air (T&M), a 1975 solo concert taped for German radio. Martyn opens with a randy Jelly Roll Morton number, plays ”˜Solid Air’ as naked goodbye (Drake died the previous year) and ends with an epic dance with his Echoplex in ”˜I’d Rather Be the Devil,’ Martyn’s adaptation of a Skip James blues, played with the fury of Jimi Hendrix, at a hellhound gait.

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