I have no objectivity when it comes to Barrett Martin's music – not anymore. I had not known what to expect when The Painted Desert, Martin's 2004 debut solo album, arrived in my mailbox. All I knew was Martin had worked behind two of my favorite rock singers ever and I was curious about this "world music" thing he was doing. When Desert arrived, I read the liner notes before I listened to a single note and my interest grew. Martin seemed a hell of an interesting guy. He traveled the world studying different forms of music and learning new instruments and also underwent a serious spiritual journey of his own leading to a Lay Ordination in the practice of Soto Zen.
I was captivated from the opening notes of the declaratory "Muhammad Ali" to the closing sounds of the lovely "The Diamond Path." I take music seriously and I fall in love with it easily. I have made bold proclamations time and time again about my love for a song, album, or artist only to see my interest wane. I admit it – I wondered if The Painted Desert would still be interesting or enjoyable to me after the newness had worn.
It has been nearly a year since I received a copy of The Painted Desert. Since then, I have purchased Wayward Shamans' Alchemy CD, a collaborative work Martin took a leading role in shaping, in anticipation of and to bridge the gap until the release of a second solo album. One year later and the magic of that Desert is still powerful enough that I revisit it often. Alchemy is good but it turns out it was unnecessary – at least for the purpose of tiding me over until Martin could release a new solo album. The Painted Desert was more than enough to hold me over until the release of Earthspeaker.
When I once again saw the FastHorse Recordings label affixed to a package in my mailbox a couple weeks ago, I could not wait until I got back into my apartment to open the envelope. I guess I am still that impatient kid on Christmas morning when new music arrives. I began perusing the tracklist on the back of Earthspeakerand my attention was immediately drawn to the album's opener, "Agbadza." The title, derived from the name of a Ghanaian rhythm, sounded very familiar to me I wondered: could this be the same song that opens Wayward Shamans' Alchemy? It turns out the basic melody and song structure are the same, although there are differences between the two versions. The Wayward Shamans' version includes some harmonious vocalizations. Those are gone from Earthspeaker. The vocal passages have been replaced by increased use of horns and the addition of a flute. The Earthspeaker version has been slowed slightly. At the moment, "Agbadza" is my favorite song on both of the two albums on which it appears.
Of the next two tracks, "The Tipping Point" is my favorite. "Pattern Recognition" is quite good as well. Three songs in and we have a winner, right? I think so, but fourth track "She Smiles" is just a little too sweet for me. It is nowhere near terrible but it does not feel like it gels well with the previous three songs.
"The Conjuror" might be more similar to The Painted Desert than anything else on Earthspeaker (and I mean that in a good way). "El Barrio" has a great melody. It would be unfair to label the song as having a "dark" sound to it, but there is certainly mystery. Maybe "dark" comes to mind because of its proximity to "She Smiles." Maybe "dark" is just an overused adjective. Trumpet, flute, saxophone advance to and retreat from the song's front, all anchored by the outstanding rhythm section of Martin and upright bassist Luis Guerra. "Nocturne" adds both a sinister and seductive vibe to the mystery of "El Barrio." "A Line in the Sand" allows multiple musical ideas to exist at the same time. You can listen to it over and over and feel like you are hearing a different song each time depending on which ideas your ears and mind decide to focus on. "Mandala" and "Deus Ex Machina," two of the album's closers, are also standout tracks. "Dues," like "Agbadza," was first heard on the Wayward Shamans' record.
Earthspeaker does not travel new sonic ground, which can make it sound more like a continuation of Desert than an actual follow-up. Some listeners might be turned off by that, but an album does not have to be jarringly different to be interesting. Interesting does not even begin to describe this.
By now you have gathered that I like this new album and am in general a fan of Barrett Martin, but you might be wondering what it all sounds like, this album. It is a fair question and one that I struggle to answer. One of the easiest and most common tricks of the music trade is for a reviewer (I am not a big fan of the word critic) to compare and contrast the subject album with other works to try to give the prospective listener a frame of reference. It is a useful device but can become a crutch. Unfortunately it is a device that is not available to me with this review. The only thing like Earthspeaker I have in my collection is The Painted Desert and perhaps Alchemy.
Here are some of the instruments utilized in the crafting of these songs: Drum set, Fender Rhodes, piano, Vibraphone, Electric, Acoustic, and Classical Guitars, Indonesian Gamelans, African Drums, steel drums, Japanese koto, hand percussion, and synthesizer – and those are just the instruments Martin plays himself. Also present on the album is upright bass, African drums, tenor saxophone, trumpet, flugelhorn, flute, gamelans, and frame drum. These are not the sounds you would expect to hear on album by a guy who used to drum for Screaming Trees, but there is a place for them and Martin has again done a wonderful job of incorporating all of them.
The good news, for those of you who might find a group of strange, unfamiliar instruments daunting or a turnoff, is that these compositions are not difficult listening. Martin's work on Earthspeaker, and The Painted Desert before it, is a great juxtaposition of the ancient and the modern, world and 'American,' the exotic and the accessible. Think of it as an American approach to world-jazz music.