Remembered primarily as the late John Martyn’s wife and his musical companion on two albums in the early seventies, Beverley Martyn is the latest female folk singer to return from their wilderness years (think Vashti Bunyan, Shelagh McDonald, Linda Perhacs and Linda Thompson) with The Phoenix and the Turtle, her first release in 14 years. Although she’ll be forever linked with her ex husband (and indeed she retains his surname instead of reverting to her birth surname, Kutner) Beverley was the one first signed and recorded in the sixties, releasing singles on the Deram label but refusing to be marketed as the “UK Cher” by Denny Cordell. Instead she fell in with the folk crowd befriending Davey Graham, Bert Jansch (she’s pictured on the cover of Jansch’s 1965 album It Don’t Bother Me.) and Paul Simon with whom she went to the States, contributed to Bookends and appeared at the Monterey Pop festival. Meeting and marrying John Martyn led the pair to record as a duo with Stormbreaker, their first album being recorded in Woodstock with Levon Helm on drums followed swiftly by The Road To Ruin, both released in 1970. Thereafter Martyn forged his solo career while Beverley brought up the kids. Unfortunately it was a tempestuous relationship fraught with domestic violence eventually forcing her to flee, divorcing in 1980.
Aside from a solo album in 1998, No Frills, Martyn disappeared from the music scene. She credits producer and guitarist Mark Pavey for nurturing her return, hitching up with him in the studio after seeing his efforts to support Davie Graham in his final years. Now in her sixties Martyn’s voice shows signs of wear and tear however anyone who remembers her clarion voice on Sweet Honesty or Auntie Aviator all those years ago will still recognise her here. An autobiographical collection of sorts the album is comprised of songs gathered by Martyn throughout her career from folk blues with her first jug band, The Levee Breakers up to more recent songs that show she still revisits her time with her errant spouse.
The album kicks off with a song that has been somewhat newsworthy over the past few weeks, billed as a new and previously unrecorded Nick Drake song, Reckless Jane. The Martyn’s befriended Drake (with Solid Air generally considered to be a tribute to him) and Beverley co-wrote this song with Drake “as a bit of a joke.” That it takes pole position might be a canny marketing ploy while its languorous guitar and piano with Robert Kirby styled string arrangement certainly pitch for the Drake audience but aside from all of that its a handsome song and Martyn carries it off well. Potter’s Blues is much more Martyn’s song as she sings about and around Dennis Potter’s play Blue Remembered Hills introducing the concept of nostalgia and remembrance to the album. A sturdy modern folk song it wouldn’t be out of place on Dylan’s Time Out of Mind album as Martyn sings with the voice of experience and regret, a great song. She next dives into the past with Going To Germany, a Gus Cannon song she sang back in the sixties. Unfortunately her voice isn’t as flexible as it used to be and as a result the song suffers as does her other foray into her jug band past on Levee Breaks with the band stumbling on their take of the blues which is somewhat stilted. Sweet Joy was the first song Martyn recorded and here she sounds just a little bit like her contemporary Marianne Faithfull while the song is a neat snapshot of mid sixties folk innocence.
Women & Malt Whisky points the finger at her husband’s demons as Martyn recalls the good and bad times with a resigned air that can match Mary Gauthier, if the Coen brothers ever decide to make a movie on the sixties UK folk scene then their soundtrack starts here. The album closes with the most upbeat number, Jesse James, which is tempting to suppose is again about John as Beverley sings that she loves his face but recognises the danger he poses.
All in all The Phoenix & The Turtle (named after a Shakespeare poem on the death of an ideal love) is a well crafted album that should be welcomed by all who lend an ear to the UK folk legacy from the sixties with Beverley Martyn proving to be a survivor who still has things to say.