Martha and the Muffins were originally clever amateurs who had fun fooling around with music in Toronto. However, the subtly catchy “Echo Beach” made them chart stars in the UK and brought their days of leisure to an abrupt halt. A minor miracle of this slick age, Metro Music captures a mild-mannered, unpretentious group at its most charming, before stress and selfconsciousness took their toll. Vocalist Martha Johnson has a sometimes awkward but always personable style of singing on “Echo Beach,” “Indecision” and “Paint by Number Heart”; it’s as if she walked into a studio to tell what happened to her that day rather than to perform. Sax player Andy Haas adds jazzier, more exotic flavorings (… la Roxy Music’s Andy Mackay), while a confident rhythm section preserves the hard foundation. Some might call Metro Music wimpy, but a more sensitive observer would judge it the result of introverts trying to rock, and — on their own terms — succeeding handily.
The more mature Trance and Dance treads less appealing waters. The title track and “Was Ezo” retain the haunting quality of “Echo Beach,” but other songs seem a little glib and too willing to be cute. Martha and the Muffins sound as if they’re having less fun than before; second vocalist Martha Ladly (composer of “Was Ezo”) left the group after this LP.
The band painted itself into a corner with This Is the Ice Age, which was the first rock album produced by Daniel Lanois. “Women Around the World at Work,” a catchy stab at mainstream pop-singledom, lacks the innocence that was their strong point. Much of the LP suffers from arid artiness — they’re too cool for pop but can’t settle comfortably into another groove. Sax player Andy Haas left after this LP.
Thus reduced to a quartet, Martha and the Muffins ventured down funky Broadway on Danseparc, adding a throbbing beat to the blend. As a detour, the title track is fine, and the guest sax provides a bit of continuity, but in other spots, Johnson’s self-important singing grates and Mark Gane’s overdrive guitar can’t overcome the repetitious, overbearing pounding. The tunes that have a jazzy pop sensibility are good, but the battle between humming and bumping is clearly lost to the forces of motion. On a positive note, the album ends with a beautifully textured languid instrumental, “Whatever Happened to Radio Valve Road?”
Mystery Walk presents the penultimately reductive group of Martha and Mark — billed as M+M — paradoxically playing prosaic social-conscience funk on “Black Stations/White Stations” and rediscovering delicate, attractive melodicism (best exemplified by “Cooling the Medium”). Throughout, the record mixes a less-aggressive intellectual dancefloor sound and enticingly atmospheric, jazz-tinged pop. An excellent return to form.
Unfortunately, the competent but aimless World Is a Ball provides a rather chilly denouement to the band’s career, emphasizing the portentousness of the Muffins’ less-memorable work with nary a trace of the playfulness that made the original band fun. Only on the dancey “Song in My Head” do Johnson and Gane lighten up enough for the music to live up to the album’s title.
A substantial sampler but by no means a definitive retrospective, the CD-only Faraway in Time compilation contains the entire Metro Music album plus selected tracks from Trance and Dance and This Is the Ice Age.