A couple of weeks ago, I received a Facebook message from a man named Bryan Hunt. To my knowledge, I have never met Bryan. But it’s not unusual for me to get friend requests and FB messages from total strangers. Musicians and other interested parties frequently contact me that way. Comes with the turf in our brave new e-world, I guess.
Bryan was reaching out to tell me about a friend and collaborator, John Martenis, who had recently recorded a solo album. “It’s one of the deepest, most beautiful, haunting pieces of music you’ve ever heard,” he raved. I get a lot of that kind of stuff, too. Any record is amazing when you’re the guy tasked with promoting it. But I’ve learned to take hyperbole with a grain of salt. In this gig, you have to, or you’ll end up regularly disappointed when the supposed “next Bob Dylan” isn’t even the next Jakob Dylan. But I digress.
The difference with Bryan is that he wasn’t writing from some slick marketing firm or record company. He has no real stake in the success of John Martenis. That’s because John Martenis died on Saturday, September 3, exactly two weeks after recording the record in question, Alone and Acoustic. He was 45.
According to the obituary that ran in the Burlington Free Press on September 13, Martenis died “unexpectedly” at his home in Ferrisburgh — I’ll let you decode the obit verbiage there. He left behind a wife and two young children. And a record.
We have a tendency to mythologize artists when they pass too soon. Would we view the music of Nick Drake or Elliott Smith differently had they not died young? At least a little, I think. Pink Moon or Figure 8 would certainly still be astonishing albums if either man were alive. But there is a certain elegiac quality to those records now, isn’t there?
The same could be said of Jeff Buckley’s Grace, which simply sounds otherworldly, and not just because Buckley was indeed an angelic talent. His premature death, and the fact that Grace was his only completed album, gives the record an air of importance it may not have had otherwise. That’s not to take anything away from any of those albums. But we view them differently now. We just do.
What, then, to make of Martenis’ final work? Is it as astounding as Bryan Hunt claims? Not quite, in all honesty. But it is very, very good. So much so that it’s hard not be angry that these 12 songs, all but two of which were first takes, are all we get from John Martenis. You can’t help but feel cheated.
Martenis had a unique songwriting style, a curious blend of blunt prose and off-kilter metaphors that, on repeated listens, often reveal themselves to be truly clever. In moments — such as “Big and Empty” — he is solemnly reflective. In others — “Comet Song” — he is playful and light.
The sense of deep brooding here is pervasive, and common to many good, introspective songwriters. And, to be sure, knowing that these were the final musings of a troubled soul is undeniably chilling. Martenis’ song titles seem to suggest he knew what was coming: “Train to Heaven,” “Final Frontier,” “These Dark Days.” But even his bleakest confessional observations — delivered in a gripping, uneasy croon — can be tempered by a sly wit. He strikes a fine balance.
Taken in a vacuum, Alone and Acoustic is a strong record from start to finish. It features a mature artist with a sophisticated grasp on his craft. But we don’t view art in a vacuum. Since art is essentially a reflection of ourselves and our surroundings, it really can’t be created in one. As such, Alone and Acoustic is an unusually affecting album, and one local audiences should take the opportunity to hear, because there will never be another new John Martenis song.
Thank you, John. May you rest in peace.
In lighter news, Christmas time’s a-coming! This week, the holiday season gets into full swing at the Big Picture Theater & Café in Waitsfield with a theatrical mashup by Buck Hill Productions called “Every Christmas Story Ever Told.” And they mean it. The show is a three-man production that mashes up carols and classic yuletide tales from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol to “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and pretty much everything in between. It’s billed as a riotously funny send-up of holiday traditions that the Los Angeles Times calls a “knee-slapping hoot.” So there’s that. Check it out this Saturday, December 3.
Speaking of oddball theater stuff, Tom Banjo has a new show debuting this weekend at Radio Bean entitled “Snow White: An Adult Puppet Show of Our Time.” I’m honestly afraid to say any more about the Cranky Show auteur’s new project with Phinn Sonin and Erin Mackel, because when I see the phrase “adult puppet show,” I can’t help but think of the deleted scenes from Team America: World Police. If you’ve seen them, you know what I mean … ahem. Anyway, there are two opportunities to catch the show this weekend: Friday, December 2, and Saturday, December 3.
Next week’s issue will include a review of a new Utah Phillips tribute CD, Long Gone, curated by Phillips’ son, Duncan Phillips. The album release party is Wednesday, December 7, at Burlington’s North End Studio and will feature Vermont folk icon Rik Palieri, who knew the late Utah Phillips personally. I mention this now because the show falls on a Wednesday, and Wednesday shows are always awkward to write about, given Seven Days’ publishing cycle. Since I have yet to successfully lobby to keep anything cool from happening on Wednesday nights, you get a double dose of Utah Phillips. So mark the show on your calendars now, and tune in next week for the album rundown.
Band Name of the Week: Maximum Infinity. Cheeky surf-punk act Torpedo Rodeo are one of my favorite local bands. Sadly, they just don’t play out very often — something about making babies or some such nonsense. So I was tickled to receive an email from TR’s Max Krauss saying he had broken ground on a new side project. The band is called Maximum Infinity and basically consists of, well, Krauss’ guitar effects pedal board. He says that his pedal board has grown so unwieldy, it no longer even requires a guitar player. To test his theory, Krauss ran the last pedal in the chain back through the first pedal to see what would happen, thus creating the “Infinity Loop.” The results are really … something. Krauss’ experimental foray won’t be for everyone — it’s pretty harsh stuff. But if you’re interested, you can find MI on Facebook.
Last but not least, from the Department of Corrections. Last week’s cover story, “House on Fire,” about the DJ collectives driving the increasingly vibrant local electronic dance music scene, contained a goof. In that story, I attributed the recent sold-out Skrillex show at Memorial Auditorium to promoters 2K Deep. It wasn’t. That one was all Higher Ground Presents. My apologies for the blunder.
Once again, this week’s totally self-indulgent column segment, in which I share a random sampling of what was on my iPod, turntable, CD player, 8-track player, etc., this week.