From The Desk Of Brother JT: John Martyn’s “Solid Air”

For a good stretch during the late ’80s/early ’90s, the John Terlesky-fronted, garage-rocking Original Sins were poised to be one of indie rock’s next big things. Despite a string of excellent LPs, that never happened for the pride of Bethlehem, Pa., who disbanded in 1999. Prior to the breakup, Terlesky started releasing more experimental records as Brother JT, and they, too, have been stellar. JT keeps his winning streak alive with the new Tornado Juice (Thrill Jockey), produced by Ray Ketchem (Luna, Okkervil River), who also manned the boards for 1996 Original Sins classic Bethlehem. The good Brother will be guest editing magnetmagazine.com all week, tornado juice not included.

JT: I’m generally not much of a fan of pure musical forms. Traditional folk, jazz, blues all seem too rigid in their structures for my taste; when I’m pretty sure what the next chord change is going to be, my mind starts to wander. It’s when the lines are blurred and rules disregarded that my ears prick up.

That’s what happened when I recently discovered John Martyn. The English singer/guitarist, who passed on in 2009, came up in the late ’60s U.K. folk scene as a contemporary and friend of Nick Drake. His early work, while displaying fine guitar technique and thoughtful songwriting, was standard acoustic folk fare, with only a few hints of the strangeness to come.

It wasn’t until Martyn started collaborating with upright bass player Danny Thompson that he found his real sound, one where strictures were loosened, genres blended and vocals slurred to the point of resembling a spacier, occasionally incoherent Van Morrison. Maybe best heard on 1973’s Solid Air, Martyn woozily drifted from genre to genre, taking the best aspects of folk craft, jazzy improv and raw blues (a wigged out take on Skip James’ “Devil Got My Woman” evolved into an echoplex-driven exploration that wouldn’t sound out too out of place on Bitches Brew) and fashioning something new and bewitching out of them.

But it might be Martyn’s bedeviled personality itself that is the real secret sauce here. “I Don’t Want To Know” verges on ’70s MOR balladry until he slips in a line about “Waiting for the planes to tumble/Waiting for the towns to fall”; no matter how seductive the musical trappings, darkness is never too far from the surface in the man’s work, reflecting his often troubled life. Things would get weirder—1975’s Inside Out flirts with ambient psychedelia—but in terms of creating a truly original hybrid of smooth grooves and rough emotion, Solid Air is one of a kind.