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Jethro Tull

Albums reviewed on this page: This Was, Stand Up, Benefit, Aqualung, Thick as a Brick, Living in the Past.

Perhaps the best things about Jethro Tull are that their records are always about and fairly cheap.  Tull has good musicianship, good influences and Ian Anderson.  Anderson irks me; his vocals are inconsistent, his songwriting repetitive, and his lyrics became increasingly dense.  Tull started out as one of those blues/jazz groups in the late 60s, fairly unique by having a flautist, and then moved on towards an interesting metal/folk combination.  Here the secret (not really) is that Anderson draws upon English folk in traditional forms, rather than the popular American version, without being as strict as groups like Fairport Convention or the Pentangle.  Anderson himself seems to be a somewhat problematic figure - as in he writes almost all their music, but frequently did not bother to come up with terribly memorable melodies, instead coasting on the group's sound.  Yes, some of their albums are hailed as landmarks, but I am much more doubtful.  They do seem to grow on one, however, so I have reserved any outright condemnation for later (at least in this intro).

Personnel:  Glenn Cornick (bass), Clive Bunker (drums), Mick Abrahams (guitar), Ian Anderson (flute, vocals, acoustic guitar, occaisonal keyboards, anything that involves blowing).  Abrahams got out after This Was, and his interim replacements were Tony Iommi and Davy O'List.  Iommi appears with them on The Rolling Stones' Rock and Roll CircusMartin Barre became a permanent member in Abrahams' stead.  John Evan (piano, etc) joins on starting with BenefitCornick quit in 1971, replaced by Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond, who first appears on Aqualung. Bunker left soon after, replaced by Barriemore Barlow.

This Was (1968), **1/2
In 1968 all you needed to do was whistle in a 12-bar format in order sell records.  This Was is frustrating because you can tell that the group had huge potential, yet did not have it together yet, and relied on blues a bit too much.  Breaking it down - Anderson's lyrics are not special, and his flute playing doesn't seem to be that interesting (I always cringe during his grunting solos), even if it was novel.  Abrahams was a good blues guitarist, but certainly second-tier.  He also manages to contribute one of the two interesting songs - "Move On Alone" which manages to move beyond the blues and has a neat guitar tone.  Clive Bunker is sort of a hard-hitting jazz-style drummer, but achieves overkill during his soloing in "Dharma for One" (I guess he was the One).  The other interesting song is "It's Breaking Me Up" which is traditional blues that works.  "Song for Jeffrey" is also here, but it kind of gets lost amidst the same-sounding tracks and I cannot understand most of what Anderson's singing.  Nice slide bits in there still.  This Was is somewhat likeable, but still essentially faceless.  Produced by Terry Ellis and the group.

Blodwyn Pig: Ahead Rings Out (1969)
Mick Abrahams new group. I have this and think it is okay.

Stand Up (1970), ***1/2
Tull expanded in all sorts of directions with Stand Up.  With Abrahams gone, his job was split up into two main parts.  The lead guitar goes to Barre, which allows Tull to move from their rote blues towards something approaching early metal (the opener "A New Day Yesterday" being the best), even if they already are getting lost in their own riffs ("For a Thousand Mothers").  Meanwhile Anderson contributes some Elizabethan folk ("Jeffrey Goes to Leicester Square", and "Fat Man" whose lyrics sound tossed off), while really shining on more normal folk songs ("Look Into the Sun", the orchestrated "Reasons for Waiting" whose flute duet [with Barre no less] is the prettiest moment on the record).  Yes, he also appears to have dropped the grunting during his solos.  Not everything has changed, as "Nothing is Easy" could easily be the best track on This Was, despite/because of its traded solos and overlong ending, and a delightful jazzy arrangement of Bach's "Bouree" has some strong flute soloing).  However, the best song is arguably a well formed combination of both these styles (cross-pollination occurs throughout the album)- "We Used To Know" with Anderson relatively simple acoustic melody overlaid with Barre's wah-wah soloing.  To put it bluntly, this a quality record as even the songs I do not particularly care for have good qualities to them (the intro to "Back to the Family" for instance).  Produced by Ellis and Anderson.  Yeah, I am kind of disappointed that the Bach song is credited only to Anderson, but Led Zeppelin did far worse.

Benefit (1970), ***
Not really anything new, except that Tull's songs became more riffy and the rhythm section began to atrophy.  Anderson is still up to his traditional folk thing ("for Michael Collins, Jeffrey and me", and "Inside") but none of those songs really go beyond the role of album filler.  Anderson's irritating vocal tendencies are starting to show up on these tracks as well (the blatantly classical "Sossity; you're a woman").  However, Anderson does produce about half an album full of good material, most of which is dependent of Barre and his role as Prince of the Snappy Guitar Lines.  These songs range from rock/folk hybrid ("With You There to Help Me" and its solo trading, or "A Time for Everything?") to a pair of fascinating harder songs with harmonized bass and guitar lines ("Nothing to Say", the riffy "To Cry You a Song" which is one the group's high points).  However, one of my favorite Tull songs has to take the crown on this one - the fun well-balanced "Teacher", which effectively mixes the various styles that swirl around on their albums.  Otherwise, some strange half experimental stuff comprise the rest, such as "Son", effectively an obnoxious parent speech with an unexpected Beatles-like acoustic interior. The other example is "Play In Time" where John Evan's hard organ sound makes them sound like Deep Purple, and psychedelic sound effects crop up, making the track sound three years old.  All in all, Benefit is a pretty solid album with Barre doing such a good job he almost carries some songs.  Evan was not officially a member yet, but he had played with Anderson earlier.  Purists please note that I took the liberty of capitalizing the song titles.  Forgive me.  Produced by Anderson.

Aqualung (1971), ***
Tull was an odd collection of bits.  Their two main players were Ian Anderson, a flautist who plays classical guitar, and Martin Barre, an electric guitarist who has metal potential.  This results in an interesting balance between hard rock and folk/classical leanings, often in the same song.  On this odd concept album the demarcation is clear.  On the first side, the title track and "Cross Eyed Mary" use both of Tull's interests in the same song and were hits (the second side's "Locomotive Breath" likewise.)  The rest of side one is made up of songs based around Anderson's classical guitar, including the likable "Mother Goose" with Elizabethan recorders.  The second side is a mess, with Anderson the songwriter going out of control.  His reliance on riffs, which served him well on the aforementioned songs, gets boring on his pro-God anti-Church sermon that makes up the latter half of the album (except for "Locomotive Breath" with its wonderful piano intro).  The side opens with "My God", which quickly turns into "My God, this is some boring crap."   Worse, his lyrics start to take on a whiny annoying tone, and he does not seem to take his vocals very seriously throughout ("Wond'ring Aloud"). Often hailed as a classic, Aqualung's parts do not quite match.

Thick as a Brick (1972), **
[Ed. - this will be re-written and raised at least half a star.] Not as bad as I was led to believe.  Thick as a Brick is infinitely better than Tales from Topographic Oceans, for example (although that alone is not quite a compliment).  My comparison with Yes is not apples to oranges, as Tull borrows a lot from that prog school here.  The use of only one track, the changing time signatures are the structural elements, but musically there are differences with their previous albums as well. Granted, the single song is based on one poem, but there are distinct musical themes, usually tied to stanzas, which beg for interruptions.  As for the lyrics (poem) itself, it is fine, although Anderson's vocal delivery and the length makes it hard to follow while listening.  I really like the opening part of the album (that which you hear on radio), and consider it one of their best works.  In keeping with the times, John Evan demonstrates that he has studied at the Emerson/Wakeman School for Keyboardists Who Want to Use Classical Motifs.  He eventually becomes overwhelming, contributing multiple parts at many points, but is limited in the lines that he plays.  All of this is to the detriment of Barre, whose role is reducing to a few solos and doubling Evan's rhythm playing.  New drummer Barlow also wants to make an impression, which he does so by overplaying most of the time, which includes an annoying drum solo towards the beginning of the second half.  Thick as a Brick has plenty of good moments, but certain elements drag the album down.

Past Living in the Past (1972), **1/2
Living in the Past is one of those odd track collections, gathering singles and unreleased songs, with a few album tracks thrown in and 20 minutes of a live concert to pad it out to four full sides.  For Tull fans this must have been a godsend, and it is interesting to hear the small amount of musical progression that Tull makes.  But Living in the Past's problems are the same as any of their albums' - all the songs blend together in one big blah eventually.  Yes, I hold Ian Anderson to blame, as his focus seems to be on his increasingly scatter-shot lyrics and less on melody. Heck, most of the last side sounds like it was tossed off as intentional filler.   That isn't to say Living in the Past does not have good points; "Teacher" has to be one of my favorite Tull songs, and the title track and "Life is a long song" are also nice.  The live side, taken from a 1970 NYC concert also works well because it flies in the face of Anderson's folk formula.  Evan turns out to be a sort of less-cumbersome Keith Emerson (similar to John Gosling) on "By kind permission of", while Anderson takes a back seat and lets the band play.  "Dharma for one" has much of the same approach, as the band plays great, the lyrics go on the back burner and a fun time is had by all, despite the fairly boring drum solo.  The other place where this happens is Anderson's instrumental arrangement of Bach's "Bouree", with good playing from all.  Thus, one good album is in the midst of this (well, maybe 3/4ths), but you have to wade through a ton of bleh.

A Passion Play (1973)
How could I resist buying this? I couldn't and did.

War Child (1974)
Yes, I bought this as well.

Of course, they continue on to the present day...

I have nothing to say, so back to the Music Page...
 

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