Songs From The Wood by Jethro Tull

May 16, 2010

Given the grand concept albums, both successful and not so successful, of the previous six years,Songs From The Wood was a breath of fresh air. While the music is tied together by style, overall the songs stand on their own as separate pieces.

I am guessing that this is the Jethro Tull album I have listened to the most times during the three plus decades since its release with Heavy Horses and Aqualung running close behind. I have even bought the CD, which is something I rarely do given my loyalty to my old vinyl collection.

The core of the band remained intact. Ian Anderson as the songwriter/flutist/vocalist plus assorted other instruments, drummer Barriemore Barlow, guitarist Martin Barre, keyboardist John Evan, and bassist John Glascock all provided some of the best performances of their careers. David Palmer, who had provided orchestration arrangements for most of their past albums, now became an official sixth member of the band.

The music was a departure from the progressive rock base of the past. It can best be described as a fusion of Celtic folk and rock music. It had a medieval feel with a rustic quality and the lyrics told wonderful stories. It was also an optimistic album which was far from the dark releases that inhabited the band’s history.

There are some Tull albums where guitarist Martin Barre out shines Anderson, but that is not the case here. Anderson’s vocals, and especially his flute work, are consistently excellent.

The album is one of the finest listens in the Tull catalogue. “Cup Of Wonder” is a celebration which makes you want to get up and dance. “Velvet Green” is a journey through time courtesy of the twisted mind of Mr. Anderson. “Ring Out, Solstice Bells” continues the upbeat nature of the album. “Jack-In-The-Green” is a fairy tale on which Anderson plays every instrument.

The album title is just about perfect as it provides tales of the forest, grass, and sky. It remains as one of Jethro Tull’s finest hours.

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Too Old To Rock and Roll: Too Young To Die by Jethro Tull

May 12, 2010

Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young Too Die was the left overs from another failed project from the fertile mind of Ian Anderson.

The concept was originally intended to be a musical which was about an aging rock star. I am always amused by artists who wrote about aging and are still performing decades later. Anyway, the project fell through and ten of the songs were released during the spring of 1976. As such it remains another oddity in the Jethro Tull catalogue of albums.

The band’s line-up had remained stable for four studio albums in a row, but now bass player John Glascock was recruited to replace Jeffrey Hammond. He joined returnee’s Barriemore Barlow on percussion, keyboardist John Evan, guitarist Martin Barre, and the ever present songwriter/vocalist/flutist Ian Anderson.

Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die is a fairly melodic album, but overall the quality is inconsistent. I can’t help but think the album was released because so much time and effort had gone into the project and something had to be salvaged. It would be their least commercially successful release in The United States since 1969’s Stand Up and would not even reach gold record status.

The album contains one excellent song, a couple of very good ones and a great deal of filler. The best of the lot is the acoustic “Salamander,” which is one of their great forgotten songs. The title track is good seventies progressive rock. “Quizz Kid” has a mellow beginning before progressing to some more spirited rock. The other positive is the guitar playing of Barre, as his solos were precise and innovative as he continued to emerge as one of rock’s premier guitarists.

Ian Anderson has always traveled his own path in life. Sometimes he was brilliant and at other times not so much, but he was always interesting. Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young Too Die was an inspired failure and remains one of the weaker efforts in their seventies repertoire.

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Minstrel In The Gallery by Jethro Tull

May 12, 2010

Minstrel In The Gallery is a fairly unique album by a very distinctive band. Having said that, while there are a couple of very strong tracks, it is not among my favorite Jethro Tull albums.

Many of their releases have any underlying theme but other than Ian Anderson’s reaction to his divorce, the music travels in a number of directions. While not a bad album, it is just not consistent and if I plan on listening to some Tull, this is not an album I would choose. When I gave this album a couple of spins in preparation for this review, it was probably the first time in decades I had listened to it from beginning to end.

One of the best line-ups in the group’s history remained intact for the fourth studio album in a row. Ian Anderson as the songwriter, lead vocalist, and flutist, Martin Barre on lead guitar, drummer Barriemore Barlow, keyboardist John Evan, and bassist Jeffrey Hammond all returned. There were fewer instruments listed in the credits as the band members stuck to basics. David Palmer was also back to co-ordinate the orchestral arrangements.

The tracks that have attracted me down through the years are the albums first two. The title song and “Cold Wind To Valhalla” both begin acoustically but switch to all an out rock mode as they progress. If I created a best of Martin Barre album these tracks would appear on it. He has always been one of rocks somewhat under rated superstars but here he demonstrates why he is one of music’s premier musicians.

“Black Satin Dancer” follows in the same vein but is not as strong overall. It has a melodic quality and a lot of orchestration. The fourth and final track on the first side of the original vinyl release, “Requiem,” is all acoustic and is slow, quiet and sedate.

“One White Duck” begins side two and is another acoustic piece but the lyrics are very obscure and the track never really takes off.

The sixteen minute “Baker St. Musse” medley of five songs has never been a favorite of mine. It is autobiographical, sexual, crude, and contains some self parody.

In The final analysis Minstrel In The Gallery is an acquired taste. It would be an unusual stop for Jethro Tull as they would continue to move in new directions as the seventies progressed.

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War Child by Jethro Tull

May 7, 2010

Jethro Tull returned to the studio during early 1974 to record their first studio album since A Passion Play. The resulting War Child was originally meant to be the soundtrack for a film of the same name. When the film did not materialize a number of songs were released as a stand alone album.

In my opinion it is just as well the movie did not happen. After the one song concept albums,Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, this release was a welcome relief as its short songs and whimsical approach made it a more relaxed listen.

War Child retained one of the classic Tull lineups. Drummer Barriemore Barlow, guitarist Martin Barre, keyboardist John Evan, and bassist Jeffrey Hammond all returned for the third studio album in a row. David Palmer was back to provide the orchestral arrangements. Ian Anderson would continue as the songwriter, lead vocalist, flute, and saxophone player. Anderson has stated he will never play the sax live again which precludes many of these songs from ever being a part of their concert act.

The music falls right into a progressive rock sound. It would continue the groups run as one of the most popular bands in the world as it reached number two on the American album charts and sold well in their native country.

The first two tracks would go against the grain of the lighter approach of the album as a whole. The title track echoed the theme of the failed film as it told the story of the afterlife of a deceased girl. Palmer’s strings, Barre’s guitar, and Anderson’s multiple talents make it a serious and complex track. “Queen and Country” is political commentary made interesting by the use of an accordion as a supportive instrument.

The remaining eight songs are a much easier listen and were very welcome at this point during their career. “Bungle In The Jungle” may have been a criticism of the inner city, but it was a smooth flowing track and became one of only two songs in their long career to reach The American Top Forty singles chart. “Back-Door Angels” fuses some jazz with their rock approach. “Skating Away On The Thin Ice Of A New Day” has an odd beauty to it and remains my favorite song from the album. “Ladies” is a simple song with a renaissance flavor which would look ahead to some of their future work. The final track, “Two Fingers,” was left over from the Aqualung sessions and explores salvation and religion from Anderson’s unique point of view.

War Child may not be among the more creative Jethro Tull releases but it served the purpose of allowing the group to catch its breath before moving on. As such when placed in perspective nearly forty years later it remains frozen in time and is not one of their essential releases.

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Living In The Past by Jethro Tull

May 7, 2010

I enjoyed this album when it was released during October of 1972 and I still enjoy it today. I estimate it is one of four Jethro Tull albums which have graced my stereo system the most times down through the he years.

Living In The Past was released betweenThick As A Brick and A Passion Play, providing welcome relief at the time from the long one song concept albums which surrounded it. The title perfectly describes the music as it reached back in time to present material that was very different from what Tull was producing in 1972 and 1973.

The material is an eclectic grouping of songs from their first four studio albums, outtakes, their five song EP “Life Is A Long Song,” and some live material. It would become a huge hit in The United States reaching number three on the Billboard Magazine album charts.

It would also contain their first American hit single. The title song was mellow, mesmerizing, and jazzy. While it was drawn from their past, it was representative of where their unique sound would go in the future. It reached number eleven on the pop charts and remains their highest charting single effort to date.

Two long live tracks took up an entire side of the original vinyl release. “By Kind Permission Of” was a rare group track written by John Evan and not Ian Anderson. It was a jazz flavored piece where organ and flute shared the stage together and gives a nice picture of their concert act at the time. “Dharma For One” is extended out to close to ten minutes and allows flutist Anderson and lead guitarist Martin Barre time to improvise and stretch out a bit.

Other highlights include “Hymn 43” which is always welcome, the brilliant “Christmas Song,” plus “Sweet Dream,” and the short “Nursie.”

The original double disc vinyl release came in a leather-type jacket with a fourteen page booklet of pictures. Many of the subsequent CD reissues have eliminated songs due to timing issues for a single disc, so buyer beware.

Living In The Past remains one of the more unique compilation albums of the seventies. It provides a nice overview of the first part of their legendary career. It may be a hodge podge of material and not have the consistently of their studio albums but, nevertheless, is an excellent album which has held up well since its release nearly 38 years ago.

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A Passion Play by Jethro Tull

May 1, 2010

I have always considered A Passion Play to be the yin to the yang of Thick As A Brick.Musically I tend to prefer Thick As A Brick.It was more tongue in cheek as Ian Anderson was in a relaxed and whimsical mood. As such, he managed to produce a lot of excellent progressive rock within the one 43 minute song. A Passion Play builds on the concept and the style but finds Anderson in a more serious mood. It is more progressive rock, but at times falls victim to excess. Sort of like Monty Python meets cirque du soleil.

Jethro Tull’s lineup stayed intact but added a few more instruments which were central to the sound. Ian Anderson plays a lot of saxophone in addition to his usual flute. Keyboardist John Evan added synthesizers to the Tull sound for the first time which gave the music a new flexibility. Guitarist Martin Barre, drummer Barriemore Barlow, and bass player Jeffrey Hammond all shine in places.

The album is again built around one extended piece but this time around it is divided into 16 sections. The original vinyl release had the tracks run together so it was basically an album to be listened too as a whole. Some CDs have banded the sections which allow the listener to pick and choose and is one of the rare instances I prefer the CD.

A main complaint is the talking parts which connect some of the sections. If they were meant as comedic relief they fall flat and for the most part are pointless.

On the other hand there is a lot of superb early seventies progressive rock contained among the albums 48 minutes of music. Jethro Tull brought their non-traditional sound to this developing music style which enhanced and expanded it and A Passion Play is an excellent example of this technique.

It also has a melodic nature and is certainly not predictable which is positive in this case. I’m not sure I completely understand all the lyrics but this was normal for this period of Ian Anderson’s career.

In the final analysis A Passion Play has a number of highs and lows and evokes strong emotion. It is not an album which graces my stereo system very often but every once in awhile when I am really in the mood it is worth a listen.

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Thick As A Brick by Jethro Tull

May 1, 2010

Aqualung,released during 1971, may be Jethro Tull’s signature release but 1972’s Thick As A Brick is their most ambitious despite Ian Anderson’s protests to the contrary over the years.

Band leader Anderson has always denied that Aqualung was a concept album even if side one of the original vinyl release was a group of character sketches and side two was a series of rants against organized religion. In reaction to it all he decided to create the mother of all concept albums and in the early seventies, at least, that goal was achieved.

I was the program director of my college radio station when this album was issued and I remember not knowing what to do with it as it contained one 43 minute song. The album was structured around a poem by a make believe boy who was really Ian Anderson in disguise. Even the cover was a spoof as it was a copy of a fictitious newspaper. It may have been all in good fun but it became Tull’s first number one album in The United States.

Anderson expands his choice of instruments as acoustic guitar, violin, and trumpet join his usual expertise on the flute. Lead guitarist Martin Barre and keyboardist John Evan had settled in as perfect compliments to Anderson’s flights of fancy. The new addition was Barriemore Barlow who had taken over as the drummer.

While I would have preferred the work to have been divided into tracks or songs and it could have easily been accomplished as there are a number of transitions points which connect mood and tempo changes, it remains a brilliantly conceived and played piece of music. It is an early example of what would become known as progressive rock and as such was a ground breaking release during 1972.

It is an album which requires the listener to pay attention as the mood, structures, textures, and melodies are constantly changing. The lyrics contain wonderful imagery and a lot of hidden meanings which also require your attention. It ends up as an album you really need to be in the mood to play as it requires a commitment of time in order to feel and appreciate it full impact.

The album is a little dated today as the contemporary issues of 1972 are not so current anymore. Still the music will challenge and ultimately satisfy.Thick As A Brick may mean stupid or dull but the album is anything but.

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Aqualung by Jethro Tull

May 1, 2010

Every once in awhile an artist or group issues an album which just resonates down through music history. Jethro Tull created one of those albums when they released Aqualung during 1971.

During the previous three years they had evolved and honed their sound which now revolved around Ian Anderson’s vocals, songwriting, and frantic flute playing plus Martin Barre’s emergence as one of rock’s great guitarists. Also on hand were new bass player Jeffrey Hammond, drummer Clive Bunker, and keyboardist John Evan who had become the bands fifth member.

The opening six chords of the title song are some of the most memorable in rock. What follows are two songs about a pedophile and school prostitute and both are early seventies rock at its best. Anderson’s biting lyrics and accompanying vocal create a visual image of old Aqualung sitting on his park bench. “Cross Eyed Mary” both rocks and rolls her through school.

One of the beauties of the album is the short acoustic interludes which divide the harder rocking songs and allow the listener to catch their breath.

“Mother Goose” is a mostly acoustic tune which continues Anderson’s character sketches. It has a slight medieval feel which would be explored in depth in the future.

If side one of the original vinyl release explores the dark side of society; side two is Anderson’s rant against God or organized religion to be more precise. “My God,” with Martin Barre’s riffing, and “Hymn 43” is ten minutes of Tull rocking the church. After the short acoustic “Slipstream” they move to what would become their signature song.

“Locomotive Breath” begins with a bluesy piano solo and then hits rock mode with Barre’s guitar, Anderson’s vocal and one of the better flute solo’s of his career. The lyrics of Darwin and the church are secondary to the instrumental delights the song contains.

Aqualung would surprisingly only reach number seven on The American album charts but would continue to sell and sell and sell until it became their most commercially successful release selling over three million copies.

It remains their masterpiece and is essential listening not only if you are a Jethro Tull fan but for any fan of rock music.

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Benefit by Jethro Tull

April 29, 2010

Benefit was the third album issued by Jethro Tull. Released during the spring of 1970, it would prove to be a huge hit on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean and earn the group a gold record award for sales in The United States.

For many casual fans, this is a forgotten album in their vast catalog as it was the predecessor to their classic Aqualung. In many ways it was the set-up for a lot of what would follow. They moved in a more progressive rock direction as flutist/singer Ian Anderson and guitarist Martin Barre became comfortable with one another. The sound had a grander vision as more orchestration is apparent and John Evan, who may not have yet been a full group member, provided piano and organ support which flushed out and enhanced the music. Also of note are the bass lines of Glenn Cornick who would leave the group after this release.

“With You There To Help Me” is a complex track as the opening flute sound and harmonies eventually give way to the guitars and a full rock attack. “Inside” goes in a different direction as it has a Renaissance flavor which would be explored more fully on such albums as Songs From The Wood and Heavy Horses.

Ian Anderson would show his eclectic side with two compositions. Michael Collins was the astronaut who circled the moon while Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed and walked on its surface. I’m still not sure if “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey And Me” is a rant against the money spent in getting to the moon, Anderson’s own disappointment at not going to the moon himself, or some other hidden meaning. Whatever the case, it is one of those humorous and creative tracks which he was so good at creating. “To Cry You A Song” emphasizes imagery over lyrical content that just reaches out and grabs your attention.

Just about every Jethro Tull album contains a track which is all about Ian Anderson’s flute and here it is the song “Teacher.” His expertise continued to improve as time passed, but this track catches him near the top of his game.

If Benefit suffers from anything it is the lack of one big memorable song. It was a collection of good songs which collectively formed a very good album. If you want to explore the music of Jethro Tull, this album is a good place to start before moving on to some of their classic releases.

Stand Up by Jethro Tull

April 29, 2010

Jethro Tull returned with their sophomore album less than a year after their debut and change was in the air.

Guitarist and co-leader Mick Abrahams had left the group due to creative differences with Ian Anderson. He envisioned more of a blues sound and Anderson wanted to take Tull in a different direction. His departure left Anderson firmly in control and he would go on to create one of the more unique sounds in rock history.

Tony Iommi would be a very short time replacement for Abrahams. His short term claim to fame with Jethro Tull was his appearance with the group on The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus. His lasting claim to fame came as the guitarist for the legendary Black Sabbath.

His replacement would be Martin Barre who would appear on Stand Up and every other release to date and would become recognized as one of rock’s outstanding guitarists and the perfect foil for Anderson.

The album’s art work is some of the most unique in history and would win several awards at the time. It had a gatefold cover and when you opened the album the members of the band would pop up as stand-up figures. Take that CD lovers. The album was reissued a number of times without this feature so you need to seek out the original release if you want to experience the true Stand Up cover art.

Stand Up finds the group beginning to move in a progressive rock direction as Anderson and Barre settled in to what would become a forty year and counting musical partnership. It may not have the conceptual cohesiveness of many of their later releases but the music comes together to form one of their stronger albums. It would be their commercial break through as it reached number one in England and earned gold status in The United States.

This album contains something for every fan of Jethro Tull. “Nothing Is Easy” and “A New Day Yesterday” begin to fuse rock, jazz, and classical music which would be so important to their future. “Look Into The Sun” is a nice ballad which features one of the first great Martin Barre solos. “Reasons” For Waiting” is a love song with lush orchestration. “Fat Man” would present the type of humor which Jethro Tull would be so good at creating. “For A Thousand Mothers” is rock with a premier flute performance by Anderson. Finally “Bouree” is a superior take on the Bach song.

Stand Up was Jethro Tull’s coming out party. If you are a fan of the group or their style of music, this album should always be with in range of your stereo system.