Tag Archives: Tull

Jethro Tull – Crest of a Knave – Classic Music Review

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Most of the commentary on Crest of the Knave focuses on the Great Grammy Upset of 1988. Tull’s stunning victory over Metallica in the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance category that year outraged metal fans everywhere.

Hey, metal fans! Get over it! Even Homer Simpson had the brains to throw his Grammy into the trash! Grammies have been a joke ever since “Mrs. Robinson” beat out “Hey Jude” for Song of the Year!

The more important development was correctly identified by the anonymous author of the Wikipedia article on Crest of a Knave. “The album relied more heavily on Martin Barre’s electric guitar than the band had since the 1970s.”

Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition!

Even Ian Anderson’s new post-throat-surgery voice and the use of programmed drums on the opening track couldn’t detract from the blessed sound of Martin letting it rip. After a series of lesser albums ending with the devoid-of-excitement Under Wraps, the sound of Martin’s clarion call over the crashing power chords and the tension-peaking synclavier pattern in the opening passage of “Steel Monkey” makes you wanna scream “Yeah!” out of sheer delight. This dramatic monologue of brainless machismo was the hottest thing they’d done since “Minstrel in the Gallery” over a decade before, as Martin shifts between those gut-punching power chords and dazzling runs in a tour-de-force display of lead guitar mastery.

“Steel Monkey” also marks another shift in Tull’s approach to this album. Instead of the mystical and mystifying lyrics that had come to dominate the post-Songs from the Wood period, Ian Anderson keeps this one taut and chillingly direct:

I work in the thunder and I work in the rain
I work at my drinking and I feel no pain
I work on women, if they want me to
You can have me climb all over you.

I absolutely do not want this creepy loser working on me, and if he tries to climb all over me, he’s gonna find himself one member short of a quorum!

In the period after Songs from the Wood, Tull albums featured more songs dealing with contemporary socio-political topics, like “North Sea Oil,” “Fallen on Hard Times,” and “Crossfire.” Somehow those songs never worked for me, largely because Ian Anderson’s lyrics lacked the common touch that Ray Davies manages to incorporate into his work. Tull’s forays into this field sounded like op-ed pieces put to music. That flaw is corrected in “Farm on the Freeway,” a first-person account of farmland handed down through generations destroyed by progress in the form of yet another superhighway. The words are simple, poignant and to the point:

Now they might give me compensation,
That’s not what I’m chasing—
I was a rich man before yesterday.
Now all I’ve got is a cheque and a pickup truck
And I left my farm on the freeway.

The first appearance of Ian’s flute is sensitive and restrained through the first verse, mirroring this simple man’s puzzlement about what has happened. The flute changes with a classic, glorious trill in the opening passage of the second verse as the narrator gains more confidence that he has indeed been wronged. Martin’s performance provides both power and irony at the right spots, and Doane Perry’s drumming is deeply appreciated (the drum machine was fine on “Steel Monkey” but would have been entirely inappropriate in this very human song).

Gerry Conway, who was on his way out as Tull’s drummer, handles the skins on the next track, the amazing “Jump Start.” The opening passage with its syncopated acoustic guitar rhythm supporting the flute is a definite grabber. Joined by bass and drums in the second verse, the double-time lines “Hey, Mrs. Maggie/Jack the Ripper/Mr. Weatherman” provide exciting variation to the main rhythm. The instrumental passages are to die for, with Ian taking command on the first and Martin frigging flying on the second. “Jump Start” is another one of those “Tull Songs” that make the band so unique; here they’re at their ass-kicking, freewheeling best.

The next two tracks describe unsuccessful encounters with the inaccessible and mysterious women behind the Iron Curtain: “Said She Was a Dancer” and “Budapest.” “Dancer” is the gentler number, where the failure to mate is more of the “gave it a shot, came up empty, better luck next time” sort; Martin’s unusually sweet solo near the end reinforces the wistfulness of the encounter. “Budapest” is another matter entirely—this bitch is fucking hot and Ian honors her with a 10-minute ode to her chilling beauty. She’s the kind of woman who burns a lifelong impression into a man’s (or woman’s!) libido:

She was helping out at the back-stage,
Stopping hearts and chilling beer.
Yes, and her legs went on forever,
Like staring up at infinity.
Through a wisp of cotton panty,
Along a skin of satin sea . . .
Hot night in Budapest.

When Ian Anderson sings, “Yes, and her legs went on forever,” we feel the pain in his soul and in his throbbing but useless member. Still, I don’t think the song deserved to go on forever. Compared to the endlessly fascinating and even longer “Baker Street Muse” on Minstrel in the Gallery, “Budapest” falls short. While I can intellectually appreciate the technical aspects (the musical structure, the touches from Ric Sanders’ violin and the twin acoustic guitars), the piece evokes admiration more than emotion.

This is not the case with “Mountain Men,” a dramatic and well-structured number. Opening with a passage that begins quietly (reflecting the still darkness blanketing the poacher and his daughter as they lay their nets), the rhythm builds to take on the character of a grand processional, establishing the appropriate tone for a farewell to yet another young man going overseas to fight the nation’s wars. More symbol than character, the young man represents the spirit of the Highlands and the love of one’s homeland:

Did my tour, did my duty,
I did all they asked of me:
Died in the trenches and at Alamein,
Died in the Falklands on T.V.
Going back to the mountain kings,
Where the sound of the piper counts for everything.

The original album closes with “Raising Steam,” a solid rocker about riding the rails. Martin gets another chance to show his command of the fretboard, whipping up several hot licks that send me into varying degrees of ecstasy.

The CD version of Crest of a Knave includes “Dogs in Midwinter” and “The Waking Edge.” Both have their virtues and their weaknesses; the lyrics in both tend to drift into the opaque and therefore don’t blend well with the lyrical clarity of the original seven songs. Whichever version you prefer, Crest of a Knave represented a return to excellence for Jethro Tull, and remains both powerful and relevant to this day.

And even if the Grammy voters couldn’t get their fucking genres straight, it more than deserved the recognition.

Jethro Tull – Songs from the Wood – Classic Music Review

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After a muddled attempt at a rock musical in Too Old to Rock ‘n’ Roll: Too Young to Die, which had followed the near-universal critical rejection of A Passion Play, War Child and Minstrel in the Gallery, Ian Anderson was clearly a man in need of a reset button. Given Tull’s trajectory, it seemed pretty unlikely that they would return to their R&B roots at this late date, and their singular version of rock was beginning to sound tiresome to the listening public. Ian Anderson’s songwriting seemed more forced than fluid, so it must have been pretty clear that a fresh perspective was necessary.

What to do, what to do?

A few years prior to the events in question, Jethro Tull had employed Steeleye Span to be their warmup act for part of the Passion Play tour, and a year after that, Ian Anderson had produced one of Steeleye Span’s albums, Now We Are Six. Given the evidence of a pre-existing interest in traditional British folk music and the fact that he’d settled down with his new wife on a country farm, all the elements were lining up to take Tull down the road to the music of yore.

However, if they were going to pull off this transformation, Ian Anderson and Tull had to fully commit to this new direction. A half-assed muddle wasn’t going to restore Tull’s reputation as a purveyor of quality music.

The a capella madrigal that opens Songs from the Wood tells the listener right at the start that Tull has gone the full monty. It is a clear, striking departure from anything they had done before. It also sets the stage for the most coherent and unified effort in Tull history. Not so much a concept album as a thematic album, Ian Anderson and company apply the conventions of British folk music with remarkable facility to help us reflect on the good and evil inside us that have been and will be engaged in battle as long as humans inhabit the planet.

“Songs from the Wood” is a joyous celebration of the natural world and the healing powers it holds for the human soul. Even for me, a totally committed urbanite who loves city life and wouldn’t be caught dead doing filthy things like camping or hiking, this is a beautiful number. What I identify with is the parallel message of “get back to the basics and free yourself of the superficial bullshit,” a sentiment that Mr. Anderson expresses more playfully in the line, “Dust you down from tip to toe.” The craving for simplicity and clarity in a confused, confusing world is a universal theme, one that Ray Davies had previously explored through his message of preservation. The choice to present the theme in “galliards and lute songs served in chilling ale” was pure genius. The background music, a building mélange of acoustic strum, lute, flute touches, hand-clapping, organ and good old Martin, is a delight. And three cheers for John Glascock on bass! Buried somewhat on his maiden voyage in their previous effort, he’s a strong presence on Songs from the Wood, working with music that demands much more capability than old Jeffrey ever could have mustered.

The theme of rebirth in nature is most directly expressed in the second song, the all-Ian performance of “Jack-in-the-Green.” The figure of Jack-in-the-Green has a curious, non-linear history, but for Ian Anderson, Jack is certainly the symbol of the life force of nature itself, a staunch ally in the battle against mindless modernism:

Jack, do you never sleep?
Does the green still run deep in your heart?
Or will these changing times, motorways, powerlines keep us apart?
Well, I don’t think so . . .
I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.

“Cup of Wonder” comes next, and rather than slipping into analytical mode, I have to say if I made a list of my favorite “joyful” songs, this would be at the top. The feel of this song is wondrous, with its foot-tapping rhythms and rich weaving of a multitude of voices and instruments. There are so many wonderful touches, from the spots of lute to the occasional low octave vocal support in the final verse and chorus and the combination of Barriemore Barlow and John Glascock keeping the whole thing moving despite the rhythmic complexity . . . I just love this song and that’s all I have to say about it! If you want to delve into its symbolism, I refer you to the Cup of Wonder site to view the extensive annotations for all the songs on Songs From the Wood.

But “Cup of Wonder” is not my favorite song on the album! There’s no way a leather-loving, sensuously-sadistic, whip-wielding chick is not going to fully embrace “Hunting Girl!” Even before we get to the story about a poor soul’s encounter with a sophisticated horsewoman, the dramatic introduction culminating in a classic Martin Barre hard-pick attack makes me shudder with joy. Ian is perfect in the character of Everyman with his understated vocal communicating self-deprecation and a strange combination of awe and embarrassment. And the imagery! Perfection!

Crop handle carved in bone, sat high upon a throne of finest English leather
The Queen of all the pack, this joker raised his hat and talked about the weather
All should be warned about this high-born hunting girl
She took this simple man’s downfall in hand: I raised the flag that she unfurled.

Boot leather flashing and spur necks the size of my thumb,
This highborn hunter had tastes as strange as they come, come
Unbridled passion, I took the bit in my teeth
Her standing over me on my knees underneath, underneath

My lady, be discrete, I must get to my feet and go back to the farm
Whilst I appreciate you are no deviate, I might come to some harm
I’m not inclined to acts refined, if that’s how it goes
Oh, high-born hunting girl, I’m just a normal low-born so and so.

I also deeply appreciate the characterization of my favorite form of intimate activity as “acts refined” and the additional validation that I am no deviate!

Tull cools it down a bit with another wonderful and yes, joyous piece of music, “Ring Out, Solstice Bells.” Was Ian Anderson ever in better spirits? Of all the songs on the album, this one best demonstrates the power of the combination of British folk and modern rock. The vocals and hand clapping are sweetly traditional; Martin’s wonderfully sharp power chords and John Evan’s contra-intuitive piano are of modern times. David Palmer’s synthesizer work gives the piece a grand, magical air that raises the power of the song tenfold . . . and the bells on the fade are a child’s dream come true.

Unfortunately, not all is sweetness and light in England’s green and pleasant land! Manipulative males roam the landscape, Reynardine-like, to lay waste the willowy wenches! “Velvet Green” is the darkest number on the album, describing in painful detail what today we would call “date rape.” The structure of the piece amplifies the meaning: the gruesome tale of abuse is sandwiched between idyllic images of green swards where sex is described as a joyous expression of natural instinct (“Never a care, with your legs in the air, loving.”) The coldness of the predator in the central section is intensified by Ian’s choice to make this a first-person narrative, and his vocal is suitably leering against a stark, intimate acoustic guitar background reminiscent of the guitar part on “One White Duck” from Minstrel in the Gallery. The last line of the central section features one of the most powerful images Ian Anderson ever created, shocking in its brutal simplicity:

Now I may tell you that it’s love and not just lust
And if we live the lie, let’s lie in trust
On golden daffodils, to catch the silver stream
That washes out the wild oat seed on velvet green.
We’ll dream as lovers under the stars,
Of civilizations raging afar,
And the ragged dawn breaks on your battle scars
As you walk home cold and alone upon velvet green.

“The Whistler” follows, a curious choice for a single release, but another beautiful arrangement with complex and contrasting rhythms adding spice and a fabulous whistle performance from Ian Anderson. “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)” is the most controversial piece on the album, with Martin parroting bagpipe in what seems an extraordinarily loud and heavy guitar performance on a record so oriented to tradition. I rather like this dirge that tells the story of a man who journeys far and wide to be with his woman only to find his place usurped at the supper table.  The narrative shifts from third to first person in the last line, a very effective device. As for the loudness issue, if you’ve ever heard bagpipes at close proximity, you have an intimate understanding of just how loud those suckers can be. But if your ears need healing, “Fire at Midnight” closes the album, a gentle and homey love song that is the perfect ending for this most beautiful Tull album.

Songs from the Wood is not only a great album, it’s a great album that the public actually noticed. According to Wikipedia, “Songs from the Wood was the first Tull album to receive unambiguously positive reviews since the time of Thick as a Brick (1972) . . . The album reached No. 8 on the Billboard album chart, making it the last top ten album for the band to date.” A clear artistic vision and a full commitment to realizing that vision can go a long way, especially when combined with exceptional musical collaboration and a theme that touches the heart of the modern soul.

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