For anyone interested in the British folk music scene of the 1960s and early 1970s, the name Beverley Martyn will surely be familiar. Often portrayed as the muse of a handful of more well-known male musicians, she was invariably subjected to sexist objectification and discrimination which had the effect of sidelining her as a creative and talented singer, songwriter and guitarist in her own right. In her private life she survived partner abuse and domestic violence of a horrific scale. Although her own musical career has suffered badly as a result of these combined abuses – in more than four decades, she has only released one album in her own right – Beverley is nothing if not a survivor and it’s a huge pleasure to be able to hear her new record, The Phoenix and the Turtle.
The album opens with Reckless Jane, a previously unrecorded song co-written with Nick Drake in 1974 and, for me, it’s one of the highlights of the album. Drake’s influence is clear in both the lyrics and the melody but this is not a reverential historical footnote to another man’s musical career; rather, it’s a respectful tribute which makes a worthy addition to Beverley’s repertoire. Owain Roberts’ strings are lush but not overbearing but perhaps most striking is Beverley’s voice; always full and rich, there is now a depth and maturity which can only come from the experiences of a life which has been unremittingly hard and it makes a perfect complement to the wistful nostalgia of the lyrics.
Potter’s Blues, apparently inspired by the television play Blue Remembered Hills by the dramatist Dennis Potter – which, in turn, takes its title from a poem in A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad – avoids the artifice for which Potter was often criticised in favour of a thoughtful reminiscence about the golden days of childhood over gently chiming guitars. The mellow mood continues with a reworking of Going to Germany, a jug band favourite of Beverley’s first group The Levee Breakers; with the string bass of Matt Malley (ex-Counting Crows) underpinning some tasty slide guitar from Michael Watts it makes a nice companion piece to Sweet Joy, another song from Beverley’s past and one of her first compositions. Drummer Victor Bisetti’s (ex-Los Lobos) cymbal flourishes flesh out an otherwise sparse arrangement while Beverley’s almost murmured vocal mixes both sorrow and confidence as she tells of the yearning for an absent loved one.
The tempo picks up for Nighttime, a tale of loneliness and longing; the string arrangement picks its way around a crisp snare while an overdriven guitar growls relentlessly behind Beverley’s mature, older-but-wiser intonation. It’s followed by Levee Breaks, a cover of the Memphis Minnie/Kansas Joe McCoy original from which Beverley’s first band took their name – and it’s a belter! Bluesy fingerstyle guitar holds down the rhythm as a distorted slide guitar howls and Beverley lets rip with a raw and heartfelt vocal which is perhaps one of her best performances on the album. The subject matter of the accompanying video couldn’t be more timely, mirroring the events of the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 with footage from the floods which overran swathes of southern Britain during the winter.
A reflective interlude follows with Women & Malt Whisky, in which a simple but effective guitar motif provides the platform for a world-weary look back at the folk music scene of the 1960s. Mountain Top draws together social commentary about urban decay and the effect of the passing of the years on an individual before the album’s closer, the country-tinged Jesse James, a bittersweet tale of an outlaw and all-round bad boy who may or may not be based in part on Beverley’s ex, John Martyn.
Beverley has described The Phoenix and the Turtle as a very personal album which “still has that in-a-room feel – it sounds like an old style analogue record”. This is a perceptive description which applies to not only the sound of the album but also its content. The nine songs here have been carefully selected from throughout her career and make the ideal showcase for her talents as a musician and a writer, and it’s a tribute to the combined skills and empathy of Beverley and guitarist and producer Mark Pavey that they’ve been able to mesh a wide-ranging collection of material into a cohesive whole. Welcome back, Beverley, you’ve been away too long.
Review by: Helen Gregory
Beverley Martyn and her band performing Levee Breaks at Roayl Festival Hall (Bert Jansch Tribute Concert, December 2, 2013)
The Phoenix and the Turtle is released 21 April 2014
Live: London’s Bush Hall on Tuesday 29 April
In support of the new album, Beverley and her full band will be playing at London’s Bush Hall on Tuesday 29 April.
Ticket Link here (Box Office: 020 8222 6955)