Book Review: Barrett Martin explores “The Singing Earth”

The Singing Earth is Barrett Martin’s love letter to music. There’s an emphasis on drumming, of course; it’s Martin’s primary instrument. But he makes it clear that he’s excited by many other different types of music as well — and he has no hesitation in traveling around the world in his search to discover new sounds.

Locally, Martin has appeared in a Who’s Who of Northwest rock: Skin Yard, Screaming Trees, and Mad Season, as well as his own solo albums. He focuses on those bands in four chapters (he calls chapters “verses”). And he certainly has some interesting insights, coming from the perspective of a musician who started out in indie rock, then crossed over to the major labels. But you’re definitely left wanting more; Martin tends to write in broad generalities, when you want more details. Nirvana opened for Skin Yard, for example; what were they like in those early days? How did that compare to the moment the tables were turned and Skin Yard opened for Nirvana as “Nevermind” was exploding in the fall of 1991? He’s also circumspect about the turmoil during his time in Screaming Trees. You can understand why he wouldn’t want to dwell on the drug use that impacted that band, as well as claimed the lives of two members of Mad Season. But you’re left uncertain over how he regards the Trees’ legacy.

He mentions his own struggles with alcohol, but only in passing. He may have avoided the tragedies that befell others he worked with because it’s clear from the rest of his book that his innate curiosity about the music of other cultures has been a touchstone in his life — and it’s surely something that helped to keep him grounded. There are chapters about his journeys to Africa, Cuba, Brazil, and Peru, to mention a few placea, and his eagerness to experience music outside of the rock ‘n’ roll bubble. His excitement is contagious, and these are the most engaging chapters in the book.

Martin also made the smart decision to include a CD with the book, with listening recommendations for each chapter (there’s also a deluxe edition that includes all five of the Barrett Martin Group’s albums). It’s great fun listening to the brash poppy punk of his first band, Thin Men, and in addition to hearing tracks from his own bands, he also introduces you to the rhythms of Belize (“Garifuna Punta Rhythm”) and Brazil (“Brazilian Candombie Rhythm”), the sounds of the jungle at night (“Belizean Rainforest”), and the spooky power of the blues (CeDell Davis & Ayron Jones’ “She’s Got the Devil in Her”). They’re juxtaposed numbers by the Barrett Martin Group (like “Che Viva”), demonstrating how his discoveries influenced his own music.

Above all, “The Singing Earth” shows that music has been a primal force throughout human history, with new sounds to be discovered wherever you travel.

Available from Sunyata Records & Books

Gillian G. Gaar

Gillian G. Gaar covers the arts, entertainment, and travel. She was a senior editor at the legendary Northwest music publication The Rocket, and has also written locally for The Seattle Times, The Stranger, and Seattle Weekly, as well as national/international outlets such as Rolling Stone, Mojo, Q, and Goldmine, among others. She has written numerous books, including She’s A Rebel: The History of Women in Rock & Roll, Entertain Us: The Rise of Nirvana, Return of the King: Elvis Presley’s Great Comeback, and World Domination: The Sub Pop Records Story. Follow @GillianGaar on Twitter.

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