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Jethro Tull – Stormwatch – Classic Music Review

My parents, who saw all the shows in Tull’s heyday, claim that the Stormwatch concert was one of their favorites, ranking it third on the list, right after the Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play. 

I have to admit that I responded to that claim with more than a little skepticism, and may have included an “oh, for fuck’s sake” in my response. I had no doubt that Tull put on a great show—by all accounts, they were an excellent live band. I just had a hard time believing that a concert filled with comparatively weak material could have been a more satisfying experience than one where the pre-encore setlist was filled with great songs (like Aqualung or Songs from the Wood). While the album has its moments—some great moments—I don’t think Stormwatch is one of Tull’s best works.

The news that a 40th Anniversary Edition of Stormwatch (The Force 10 Deluxe Edition, no less) is on its way reminded me that I hadn’t done a Tull album in quite a while and still had plenty of holes to fill in the Tull narrative. Since I prefer to review original presentations, I decided to get off my beautiful ass and get on with it before the (hopefully) “new and improved” version hits the shelves.

The critical response to Stormwatch at the time of its release was both unfavorable and unfair. What was unfair was that nearly every review I read lumped Stormwatch into Tull’s “folk period” along with Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses, a view still prevalent to this day. This massive display of groupthink begs the question, “Did any of those critics actually listen to the fucking record?” I count one folk song on the entire album, with two others somewhere in the ballpark. You could make a much better case placing Stormwatch in the genre of progressive rock, but really, the music is all over the map. I would define Stormwatch as a transitional album between the folk-rock lean that preceded it and the more electronic sound that followed it. The evidence supporting the transitional label is strengthed by the many changes in the band lineup after its release—mainstays John Evan and Barriemore Barlow decided to split, and sadly, bassist John Glascock died of heart problems during the tour. Combine all those personnel changes with the irrepressible restlessness of Ian Anderson and it’s hard to see how Stormwatch could have been anything but a transitional album.

I’ve always felt that the variability in the quality of Tull albums was driven more by the quality of Ian Anderson’s songwriting than style, instrumentation or vibes in the studio. What weakens Stormwatch more than any other factor is the lack of clear thematic intent. He had a strong metaphor to work with; there were plenty of signs in the ’70s that potentially destructive “storms” were gathering on the horizon and exerting a destabilizing effect on societies across the globe. Unfortunately, through a combination of incredibly poor track placement and the tendency of the creative mind to chase butterflies, he allowed the theme to dissipate almost to the point of irrelevance. While the new edition may clean up the inconsistent quality of the production, some of the songs are simply unsalvageable because they weren’t very good songs in the first place and don’t fit particularly well with the other songs on the album.

Stormwatch is also the album where Ian Anderson began dabbling in current events, with seriously mixed results. “North Sea Oil” is one of the weaklings in the litter, and its placement in the pole position immediately lowers listener anticipation. The problem isn’t with the musicians—Ian’s flute fills are spot-on and Martin Barre gets in a few good licks—the problem is with the blah lyrics, very awkward melody and curious chord progression. The odd shifts in tempo add nothing to the piece and the spoken word passage interferes with a relatively high-quality Anderson-Barre duet. And what’s that “Before we all are nuclear—the better way!” crap all about? Rule #142: Never open an album with a song that sounds like the third page of the Business section.

I rather like “Orion,” especially once Ian stops channeling Milton (“Let’s sip the heavens’ heady wine” is particularly annoying) and plants his feet on terra firma:

And young girls shiver as they wait by lonely bus-stops
After sad parties: no-one to take them home
To greasy bed-sitters and make a late-night play
For lost virginity a thousand miles away.

The melody in the verses flows very nicely, and the mix of acoustic guitar, strings and piano blends exceptionally well. I would have preferred more clarity on Martin Barre’s rough guitar in the choruses, but that loss is offset by the excellence of Barriemore Barlow’s responsive drum patterns. This is one song that could benefit from remastering, and I hope the deluxe version cleans up the mix.

“Home” is a relatively pedestrian love song where Ian expresses garden-variety rock star guilt about leaving the main squeeze behind while he traverses the planet on a jumbo jet. This time David Palmer overdoes it on the strings, and Martin’s electric guitar fills feel quite out of place with the tender mood expressed in the lyrics. The slight lift in energy from “Orion” vanishes pretty quickly, a phenomenon that usually points to a problem with track placement, but trying to resolve that issue uncovers another problem. “Home” is one of those wistful, reflective songs that belongs near or at the end of an album, but unfortunately, there’s already a wistful, reflective number in the closing spot, the uninspired instrumental “Elegy.” The problem isn’t track placement but a shortage of sufficiently diverse, quality material.

“Dark Ages” can be dispensed with in short order: nine minutes and fourteen seconds of poorly-arranged, generally uninspiring music supporting a set of thoroughly incomprehensible lyrics. There’s a brief moment two-and-a-half minutes in where Martin Barre launches a machine-gun attack from the fretboard and Barriemore Barlow sounds like he’s getting ready to let it rip, but the anticipation dies a horrible death when Ian cuts off the power to give us another dull verse.

Side one wraps up with the sprightly instrumental “Warm Sporran,” where Ian shines on both flute and bass (filling in for the ailing Glascock). This is one of the tightest band performances on the album, with Evan displaying superb touch and Barlow masterfully handling the diverse drumming demands. It’s also one of the best-engineered tracks on the album, so I hope the remastering doesn’t mess with it too much.

If you’re hoping that side two is any better, guess what? It is! I’ll never understand why an album titled Stormwatch didn’t open with a song charting the path of a fierce storm gathering in the near-distance. . . especially WHEN ONE OF THE SONGS ON THE ALBUM DOES EXACTLY THAT. “Something on the Move” would have made a far more compelling opener with its ripping guitar, energetic flute and . . . it resonates with the title of the fucking album! And goddamn if Ian didn’t nail the poetic imagery:

She wore a black tiara
Rare gems upon her fingers
And she came from distant waters
Where northern lights explode
To celebrate the dawning
Of the new wastes of winter
Gathering royal momentum
On the icy road
With chill mists swirling
Like petticoats in motion
Sighted on horizons
For ten thousand years
The lady of the ice sounds
A deathly distant rumble
To Titanic-breaking children lost
In melting crystal tears.

Let me just say that I deeply resent the decision to shift to gender-neutral names for hurricanes and tropical storms. Only a woman could make such a dramatic, dominating and icily mesmerizing entrance, paralyzing men in their tracks as they struggle to understand how they could possibly sport an erection in a sub-zero environment. Because cold bitches are hot, dummies! I love the rhythmic differences between verses and chorus, the former marked by almost funk-like syncopation and the latter more kick-ass rock. I’m almost always happy when Martin Barre is prominent on a Tull song, as he seems to feed off the energy of the others while returning the energy in full.

As for the follow-up, “Old Ghosts” is a nothingburger of a track, a reminder that even excellent musicianship can’t save a song if the song fucking sucks. Cut it out entirely and you wind up with “Dun Ringill” next in line, the perfect complement to “Something on the Move,” a song that presents a different form of intensity while strengthening the storm metaphor. Dun Ringill is the site of an Iron Age fort on the Isle of Skye, a place within walking distance of Ian Anderson’s digs at the time of the recording. The soundscape is hauntingly beautiful, integrating the sounds of storm and sea with precisely strummed and arpeggiated acoustic guitar. The windswept nature of this ancient place on a far northern isle is captured in the brief bursts of vocal echoes, like human sounds carried on the wind bouncing between the rockfaces. It’s a song that evokes images of shadowy pagans gathered amidst a stone circle (a la Stonehenge), united in ritual as they contemplate the destructive power of nature:

We’ll wait in stone circles
‘Till the force comes through
Lines joint in faint discord
And the storm watch brews
A concert of kings
As the white sea snaps
At the heels of a soft prayer
Whispered

Ian’s voice is particularly fine on this track, his tone alternating between matter-of-fact acceptance of fate and soaring when offering his companion a stroll to this magical, darkly romantic place. It will forever befuddle me (no blonde jokes, please) that Stormwatch did not open with the pairing of “Something on the Move” and “Dun Ringill,” as those two songs back-to-back make for an intensely compelling introduction while clearly establishing a strong central theme.

At this point, the dual irritations of incomplete ideas and jumbled track order are really starting to annoy me, but Ian Anderson manages to save the day with what I think is one of his greatest and most impactful compositions, “Flying Dutchman.” Written during the period when the exodus of the “boat people” escaping Vietnam was at its peak, the song is unfortunately a timeless reminder of human resistance to providing haven for people fleeing violence and repression in search of a new life—resistance that is often tightly linked to racism and xenophobia. The symbol of the ghost ship of legend doomed to sail the seas for all eternity serves as a metaphor for the fear of outsiders. As the story morphed over time, the phantom ship came to be seen as a portent of impending doom, making the threat of the horrible consequences of allowing “foreigners” into one’s country a sick form of common wisdom. In truth, the Flying Dutchman is a creation of our own fears, a projection of our shadows.

The first verse describes an old woman standing at a harbor, sending warm wishes to the children who have set sail for distant shores. Their journey is doomed before it begins, as barriers to entry have sprung up in a multitude of countries, ensuring they will “come empty home again.” The music supporting the verse alternates between quiet moments and sudden thrusts, oscillating between quietly expressed hope and the natural fear that would accompany any journey into the unknown. The contrast between the gentle piano-flute duet and Martin Barre’s distorted, trebly guitar is quite dramatic, expressing in music the gap between innocence and hard experience. John Evan gives us a marvelous farewell performance in this piece, forming a compassionate counterpoint to Ian’s gentle, sadness-tinged vocal. As the verse ends, we hear Barriemore Barlow in the distance, executing a snare roll with military precision that cues a shift in style and tone for the chorus. Evan now switches to rhythmic support by adopting a style close to barrel roll, allowing Ian to deliver his first message to the first-worlders in the audience:

So come all you lovers of the good life
On your supermarket run
Set a sail of your own devising
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

The second verse describes some of the horrors faced by the boat people during their perilous journey in search of a home:

Wee girl in a straw hat: from far east warring
Sad cargo of an old ship: young bodies whoring
Slow ocean hobo ports closed to her crew
No hope of immigration, keep on passing through.

Ian’s second message is directed at parents with children, asking them to make the empathic leap: there but for fortune, those could be your kids:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Your children playing in the sun
Set a sympathetic flag a-flying
And be there when the Dutchman comes.

You may have heard of the boat disasters occurring in my neck of the woods: stories of thousands of immigrants crammed into barely seaworthy vessels drowning in the Mediterranean with appalling regularity. The horrors of such a death were also familiar to the boat people:

Death grinning like a scarecrow Flying Dutchman
Seagull pilots flown from nowhere try and touch one
As she slips in on the full tide
And the harbour-master yells
All hands vanished with the captain
No one left, the tale to tell.

Ian’s final message to the smug and comfortable attempts to remind them that the same fate awaits them unless they open minds and hearts to the fundamental truth that we are all human and our survival is dependent on mutual assistance:

So come all you lovers of the good life
Look around you, can you see?
Staring ghostly in the mirror
It’s the Dutchman you will be
Floating slowly out to sea
In a misty misery.

All it would take to put first-worlders in the same boat is one crazy bastard doing something to ignite a war, and given the recent ascendance of several crazy authoritarian bastards who are fully committed to fostering hatred between human beings, any of us could find ourselves taking a sail on the Dutchman in pretty short order. Ian Anderson has rarely written a song of such power and undeniable truth, and I hope with every fiber of my being that we learn to embrace that truth before it’s too late.

Mentioned previously, “Elegy” isn’t worth another word. I will now move on to the denouement.

Though I think it’s somewhat of a mess as an album, I definitely intend to purchase the deluxe edition when it comes out. All the Tull deluxe editions released so far have been of the highest quality, and I’ve always learned something new from the listening experience. In this case, I’m hoping that some of the excluded songs, demos or outtakes will provide substitute material for some of the weaker tracks so I can imagine a more perfect version of Stormwatch.

No, it’s not their best, but those few keepers make Stormwatch worth an edited spin.

Jethro Tull – This Was – Classic Music Review

The opening line of my review of Stand Up! (published March 5, 2013) exposes me as hypocrite who failed to follow her own rules: “It’s almost impossible to believe that Jethro Tull started out as an R&B-Blues band.”

The truth is that my engagement with This Was had been of a cursory nature, and I never listened to it the requisite three times through. I formed an initial impression, stuck to it like a slug on a wall and arrived at a conclusion that would never hold up in court. I was guilty of the corollary to the Cartesian proposition: Je ne pensais pas donc je suis un idiot.

I’m going to leave that opening line as is, if only to remind me of my sluggish, slimy sloppiness. However, for the purposes of reviewing Tull’s first album, I issue the following correction:

Jethro Tull began life as a highly eclectic band, creating a sound that drew from and integrated a variety of musical influences, including jazz, blues, R&B, rock and the peripatetic wanderings of Ian Anderson’s brain.

My reassessment of This Was came about because I got a dog.

I’d always wanted a dog, but never had the right combination of living circumstances to practice responsible dog ownership. My place in Seattle didn’t have a yard, and though Paris is very dog-friendly, I knew I was only there on a temporary basis. When we moved to Nice, my partner and I abandoned our day jobs for a consulting practice and wound up spending a lot of time on the road together (and yes, we did mix business with pleasure in the privacy of our hotel rooms—a very popular employee benefit!). Most of our gigs were shared gigs where I did the strategic stuff and Alicia did the financial stuff, but over the past year, we’ve had more split assignments. Both of us thought it would be nice to have access to the unconditional love of a dog while the other was traveling, because vibrators only fill part of the gap and anyway, self-stimulation often makes you miss your squeeze all the more.

Still, there are times when both of us are gone, and we needed to nail down doggy care before securing a pooch. My parents were obvious choices, but I knew they would ask for favors in return, usually in the form of music reviews. I’d done more than enough favors for my dad lately, so I thought I’d approach my dear mother first.

I was not surprised by her demand that I complete my exploration of Jethro Tull. She is a passionate admirer of Ian Anderson because his self-taught approach to the flute liberated her from the heavy chains of the classical paradigm, a set of methodologies and techniques she had mastered over a dozen years of daily practice and hours of lessons under the sadistic instruction of a flute fascist. After Tull came out she cast the classical scores aside and went free-form, improvising flute parts to recorded material and jamming with local musicians.

“I can do that. The hole is mid-period, so we’re talking Heavy Horses, Stormwatch, Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll . . . ”

“Stop. You have forgotten the most important one.”

My blonde brain couldn’t figure what album she thought was the missing piece to the jigsaw puzzle. It couldn’t be Under Wraps or Roots to Branches. “Living in the Past?” “Non.” Ah! She’d seen Tull several times, though, so I offered up Bursting Out. “Non.” 

“I give up.”

Maman stood up, pulled This Was from the stacks and put it on the turntable. “Ecoute-le. Il ne sait pas la bonne façon, la manière conforme. Il apprend par la performance.

“Yes, I know all that, but this really isn’t Tull, is it? I mean, there’s no Martin . . .”

“You cannot understand Jethro Tull without understanding This Was. It wasn’t the flute or the blues influence that made them who they were. Those were important, but the vital truth is that they began with the ethic of ‘anything is possible,’ and the belief that if you have never done a thing before, you can learn. It was that ethic that made their sound unique and allowed Ian Anderson to take their music to unexpected places.”

I could see her point. While This Was isn’t one of Tull’s greatest works, it is the place where their one-of-a-kind sound was born. In the end, maman got at least four Tull reviews and I have a cuddly little friend who has already been fully trained not to scratch on the bedroom door when her mommies are making funny noises inside.

*****

When it comes to the three basic building blocks of most popular music, I’ve always considered Tull more grounded in rhythm than melody or lyrics. While their rhythms would diversify and intensify over the years, the dominant feature of Tull rhythms is syncopation, those delightful interruptions of the predicted flow that ramp up excitement and listener interest. “My Sunday Feeling,” Tull’s grand opening number,  features a syncopated pattern on the main riff, serving the dual role of thematic glue and break-in-the-action. On the verses, the straight 4/4 time gives Ian Anderson a solid foundation for his vocal and the syncopated response to each line forestalls boredom.

The steady foundation of the verse lines is essential, as Ian finds himself in the shaky role of man recovering from an all-night bender and needs a rail to hold onto as he tries to navigate through the fog that fills his brain. His natural conversational phrasing creates a vivid picture of a guy who had a few too many on a Saturday night, almost trembling on the lines “I really don’t remember/But with one more cigarette I think I might” and sounding just about ready to upchuck in the last verse (“Oh I don’t feel so good/Need someone to hel-el-elp me to my bed.”) In between vocals, Ian serves primarily as a foil to Mick Abraham’s more substantial guitar contributions, limiting his role to fills and the glorious ending flurry. Having only picked up the flute a couple of months before the recording, he doesn’t overplay his part, keeping things simple and tasty. Clive Bunker really breaks a sweat on this piece, with cascades of tom rolls relieved occasionally when he shifts to high-hat-only for the closing line on each verse. Glenn Cornick does a fine job tightening the rhythm while sometimes allowing himself the luxury of moving off the root note for a supportive run. Tull may just be getting started, but here they strike a rare balance of loose feel and tight playing that can elude even the most experienced band.

One of the quirkier aspects of This Was is the mix of stereo and mono recordings, with the difference made even more noticeable by the “creative panning” practices of the mid-to-late 60’s. On “My Sunday Feeling,” the song opens with Mick’s guitar on one channel and Ian’s flute across the way on the opposite channel, in a call-and response pattern. When the vocals begin, we have Ian’s voice on one side, his flute on the other and Mick shoved into the background with the rest of the boys. It’s a move that clearly cries out: WARNING: YOU ARE LISTENING TO A RECORDED FACSIMILE. THIS IS NOT A LIVE PERFORMANCE. On the next track, “Some Day the Sun Won’t Shine For You,” Ian harmonizes with himself on opposite channels with no intention whatsoever of coming close to matching the melody note-for note. This is a good thing, because it’s a song with a front-porch blues feel and precision would have only spoiled it. I should note that the song bears more than a passing similarity to Big Bill Broonzy’s “Key to the Highway.” Broonzy’s original features a slightly faster tempo, but all the essentials are there to call this a DNA match with 99% confidence: chord pattern, harmonica, Delta guitar style, the works. Plagiarism aside, this is a good I’m-gonna-leave-my-baby song to sing along to when you’re drunk enough to feel the first-world pain but not drunk enough to forget to have the last word in the pointless argument. Ian’s harmonica work is straight, simple blues, and he sounds a tad more comfortable and confident with the harp than he did with the flute on “My Sunday Feeling.”

Next up is our first mono recording and our first and only Abrahams-Anderson songwriting collaboration, the more Tull-like “Beggar’s Farm.” I say it’s Tull-like because of the use of the flattened fifth on the main Gm riff, a dissonant choice found in many Tull songs, most notably on the iconic guitar riff on “Aqualung.” The song itself is a pretty standard minor blues piece with an awkwardly executed rhythmic shift to an instrumental passage, but is noted as the first recorded evidence that Ian Anderson can go positively manic on the flute, integrating vocalizations while attacking the flute with gusto.

In contrast to Ian’s memorable wrap-up to “Beggar’s Farm,” Mick Abraham’s “Move on Alone” is a mellower, more straightforward experience backed by horns arranged by soon-to-be longtime collaborator David Palmer. It’s a nice piece; Abrahams is a pedestrian put passable vocalist and his guitar work is spot on. What the song demonstrates more than anything else is that Mick Abrahams doesn’t belong here; the song doesn’t fit with the other material on the album and the band itself doesn’t have much to do—Palmer’s horns are the focus. Mick realized things weren’t going to work pretty quickly and moved on to Bloodwyn Pig, producing a damn solid album in Ahead Rings Out with the classic number “Dear Jill”—an album that competed fairly well with Stand Up! in the U. K. charts (despite the horrid cover).

“Serenade to a Cuckoo” is a slower, late-night version of the Roland Kirk original. Ian’s version deeply offended Robert Christgau, who devoted two whole sentences to This Was in his “consumer review” for The Village Voice: “Ringleader Ian Anderson has come up with a unique concept that combines the worst of Roland Kirk, Arthur Brown, and your nearest G.O. blues band. I find his success very depressing.” More important than the track (which is really a very simple piece that any rookie flutist can master) is the first indication of irrational hostility on the part of a stable of music critics who could never get their heads around Tull—a hostility that would play an important role in Tull history.

Flipping over to side two, we find the rare Anderson-Bunker composition, “Dharma for One,” Tull’s contribution to the “gotta hear it live” fan-driven genre that emerged in the 1960’s. Clive gets half-credit for the drum solo that occupies about half of the recording time. I’ll go out on a limb here and say neither the all-instrumental version here nor the amped-up organ-enhanced live version with lyrics that appears on Living in the Past fulfill the song’s potential. The chord pattern is simple but varied enough to allow for some interesting variations, but I don’t find much of interest in either version except for Ian’s calming flute in the less-intense passages. Clive’s drum solo is just a wild bash, as opposed to the almost concerto-like structure of Ginger Baker’s live version of “Toad.”

We head back to traditional Chicago-style blues with “It’s Breaking Me Up,” a tightly-played number featuring Ian doing double-duty on the vocals and delivering a fairly strong harmonica performance complete with grunts, moans and other wordless expressions. Abrahams is really solid on this piece, with clever fills and an understated solo that fits the mood of the piece like a glove. It’s followed by “Cat’s Squirrel,” a staple of many a British band of the era, an all-out bash to get the crowd moving. Tull’s version flat-out rocks, bursting out from the start with nasty distortion, a blazing solo from Abrahams and a stop-time section with outstanding clarity and build, in large part due to Clive Bunker’s skills with touch and power. In contrast, Cream’s version seems rather perfunctory and wasn’t aided in the least by a pretty lousy recording.

The most unusual piece on This Was is the first of a trilogy of Jeffrey songs that appear on the first three albums. By all accounts, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond was a rather quirky fellow in his youth, a man with a distinctive view of life who provided Ian Anderson with companionship and peculiarities galore that Ian captured in song. “A Song for Jeffrey” mirrors Jeffrey’s quirkiness in both the music and the lyrics. The intro features a brief syncopated passage with Ian on flute, Glenn Cornick on bass and Abrahams on guitar in the key of D, a pattern that suddenly shifts to a bouncy forward rhythm in the key of G. Ian’s vocal is heavily filtered, and the resulting sound is that of a man pinching his nostrils closed with two fingers—and when he arrives at the chorus and the band takes it down a few notches, he begins to sound like a man who has lost his teeth as well. The result is a curiously charming grumpiness also reflected in lyrics that describe Jeffrey as one stubborn SOB when it comes to how he chooses to live his life:

Don’t see what I do not want to see
You don’t hear what I don’t say
Won’t be what I don’t want to be
I continue in my way

I’ve ceased to see where I’m goin’
Ceased to see where I’m goin’
I’ve ceased to see where I’m goin’
I don’t want to

I don’t know how else to explain why I like “A Song for Jeffrey” more than any other song on the album, but I’ll tell you this: when I listen to it, the picture of the old men on the cover pops into my mind.

This Was ends with a brief, loose fragment of a jam credited to the entire band and producer Terry Ellis, a piece called “Round,” which isn’t a round at all. I can’t explain why this works either, but it seems a perfect ending to an album filled with first-time experiments. While it lacks the richer diversity and depth of Stand Up! and bears only a microscopic resemblance to the band we hear on Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play, the performances on This Was demonstrate the inclination to experiment with sound and the emphasis on rhythm as a means of carrying a message that would characterize the long and often unforeseen journey of Jethro Tull.

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