Jethro Tull

This Was >>
Stand Up >> 3-for-1 review
Benefit >>
Aqualung
Thick As A Brick


This Was (EMI '68, 01) Rating: B+
Stand Up (EMI '69, 01) Rating: A
Benefit (EMI '70, 01) Rating: A-

To many people Jethro Tull conjures up cartoon images of bug eyed Ian Anderson standing one-legged onstage playing his flute to a throng of fanatical followers. Others know the band for a slew of popular “classic rock” radio tracks in the ‘70s, or for receiving one of the most ludicrous Grammy Awards ever (Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance, 1988). However, to dismiss the band’s music, as some critics have done, would be a mistake, and with EMI’s recent reissues of the first three Jethro Tull albums the time is ripe for a reappraisal.

This Was was the band’s first album, and to quote Ian Anderson’s modest liner notes, recently written for these reissues: “Mick Abrahams’ forceful but lyrical blues guitar was the driving force behind the early efforts, adorned by my tentative but hopefully improving flute-playing, which had commenced a few months earlier.” Anderson’s harmonica playing and distinctive, decidedly unbluesy singing are also major components of the Jethro Tull sound on This Was, but back then the band was Abrahams’ almost as much as Anderson’s, making the album vastly different than any other Jethro Tull release.

Songs such as the generic but well executed album opener “My Sunday Feeling,” the almost a capella folk blues of “Some Day The Sun Won’t Shine For You,” and commercial sounding rockers such as “Move On Alone” and “A Song For Jeffrey” are impressive. However, the heart of This Was is comprised of instrumental jams. In particular, “Cat’s Squirrel” is a fine showcase for Abrahams’ hot blues guitar, while hints of the band’s future eclecticism are evidenced on “Serenade To A Cuckoo,” a jazzy cover of a Rashaan Roland Kirk song, and “Dharma For One,” whose extended drum solo foreshadows the band’s later progressive leanings. On This Was the band were just beginning to develop their style, but these basic blues-based tracks still have an undeniable energy and imagination going for them (try naming another blues rock band with a prominent flute player!) that enables the album to maintain its appeal over 30 years later.

With Martin Barre replacing Abrahams, the highly diverse Stand Up was a significant improvement on This Was. Drawing on elements of Anderson’s self-described interest in jazz, blues, classical, folk, and ethnic music forms, this stellar collection delivered a fascinatingly eclectic mix of many styles. Although Anderson was now clearly the driving force in the band, having written all the album’s songs, each member shines throughout. For example, Glenn Cornick’s highly melodic, jazz-based bass playing provides far more than mere support on “Bouree” and “Nothing Is Easy,” while Clive Bunker’s tribal percussive patterns on “Jeffery Goes To Leicester Square” and “Fat Man” are also highly inventive and hard to ignore. For his part, Barre makes Abrahams a distant memory on songs such as “Back To The Family” and “We Used To Know,” where he unleashes metallic guitar solos that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Black Sabbath album (ironic considering that Black Sabbath’s Tony Iommi had initially replaced Abrahams!). Other album highlights include the bluesy hard rock of “A New Day Yesterday,” the melodic folk of “Look Into The Sun,” and the atmospheric ballad “Reason’s For Waiting.” Actually, the whole album is one big highlight, and though later albums like Aqualung made the band superstars here in the United States, Jethro Tull probably never made a better album than Stand Up, which went to #1 in the U.K. and started building the band a significant fan base.

Benefit saw the addition of keyboardist John Evan, and (again according to Anderson) “the resultant thickening of the musical textures allowed guitarist Martin Barre to focus more on monophonic riffs and solos rather than worry about banging away at chords most of the time.” I’d also agree with Anderson’s assessment that the album had a harder, darker edge than the previous two albums, as the band explored a narrower merger of folk and hard rock. Benefit is still pretty eclectic and experimental, but Barre’s intense playing comes to the fore so much that had the band won a Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Grammy award in 1970 (had that category existed at the time) instead of 1988 it wouldn’t have seemed so ridiculous. The end result is a less consistent album that at its best still sounds fresh and exciting, especially on epic tracks such as “With You There To Help Me,” “Nothing To Say,” and “To Cry You A Song.”

In addition to reintroducing three fine, much overlooked albums to a new audience beyond the band’s hardcore fan base, each album comes equipped with improved sound (for example, This Was was made for a paltry $1200 but doesn’t sound like it), and excellent bonus tracks. Most of these used to reside on 1972’s Living In The Past, an excellent compilation that at this point in time is no longer in print. Even non-fans should be familiar with classic rock radio staples such as “Living In The Past” and “Teacher.” However, it’s less well-known winners such as “Love Story” (from This Was), “Sweet Dream” (from Stand Up, which even has the best bonus tracks), and “Witches Promise” (from Benefit) that provide the icing on the cake for these enjoyable reissues. They may not be considered hip, and they would later fall prey to more than one pretentious misadventure, but after listening to This Was, Stand Up, and Benefit, Jethro Tull certainly has my respect.

Aqualung (Chrysalis ’71) Rating: A
With a new bass player in tow, John Hammond Hammond, Jethro recorded Aqualung, their breakthrough album that made the band one of the biggest in the world in the early to mid-‘70s. A concept album that the New York Daily News’ Jim Farber once called “Anderson’s famed tussle with God,” Aqualung is more notable for its music than for its controversial subject matter. At the very least, Aqualung contains four monumental tracks that have bludgeoned FM radio listeners for 30 years: “Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary,” “Hymn 43,” and “Locomotive Breath” (though in truth I hear these songs less and less in recent years). These hard rockers have all the elements of classic Tull, in particular Barre’s memorable riffs (and his best solo ever on “Aqualung,” which also includes Anderson’s unforgettable “do you still remember, December’s foggy freeze…” vocal section) and Anderson’s jittery flute playing and strange (occasionally grating) voice. “Cross Eyed Mary” rocks hard enough that Iron Maiden would later cover it, “Hymn 43” is a supremely catchy riff/religious rocker, and Jethro Tull never better matched their lyrics to their music than on the explosive, hard charging “Locomotive Breath.” Elsewhere, despite at times heavy-handed anti-religion lyrics, Aqualung has weathered time very well. For, framed around several pretty acoustic segues are superb fully fledged songs such as “Mother Goose,” which deftly showcases the band’s unique mixture of Celtic flavored folk with melodic hard rock. Also impressive is the intense rocker “Up To Me,” while “My God” and “Wind Up” are a pair of epic-scale tracks (as was “Aqualung”) that creatively mix together folk, hard rock, and gothic elements. It may have its pretentious faults, but over 40 years later Aqualung remains an extremely enjoyable listening experience.

Thick As A Brick (Chrysalis ’72) Rating: A-
Perhaps no other album better demonstrates the difference between amateur (primarily Web-based) critics and professional critics. I'm generalizing in both cases, of course, but the 1992 Rolling Stone Album Guide gave this album 1 star and Robert Christgau gave it a C-, while many amateur critics seem to give this album the highest possible score, or at least close to it. So who is right and who is wrong? Well, my personal opinion is that both the reviewer at Rolling Stone and Cristgau probably took one look at the credits (two 20+ minute songs - what the hell?) and didn't even bother listening to it more than once before dismissing it as overly pretentious and not worth the effort. They're both dead wrong, of course, at least in my opinion, and I don't trust either one of those outlets anyway. Then again, I think this album is overrated by most amateur sites as well (again, generally speaking). Don't get me wrong, it's a very good and often great album, but it has some serious flaws. Of course, this really isn't two songs at all, as it can easily be broken down into about fifteen easily identifiable sections. This is also a concept album, and quite a clever one at that, but let's face it, progressive rock isn't about lyrics, and it's the music here that really counts. The album begins with its famously lovely flute melody, but the rest of Thick As A Brick is much different than what I expected, as the band gives progressive rock groups like Yes a run for their money during this multi-sectioned opus. For one thing, these guys can really play (new drummer Barrimore Barlow, who continues the band's history of strange names, is a standout), and the band's tight musicianship makes for many exciting moments. In addition, the album features the requisite tricky time signatures and group "jamming", but the jams always seem carefully arranged so that each member complements one another rather than showily trying to steal the spotlight. Finally, the album has a diverse mix of styles. For example, the section that begins at around 5 minutes is an intense ballad that rocks (trust me), highlighted by Martin Barre's wailing guitar solo (there's lots of cool guitar throughout by the supremely underrated Barre) and an intense vocal from Ian. The sections that begin at around 12:45 and 17:30, respectively, are led by catchy flute/keyboard melodies, not to mention Barlow's militant beat, while the six minute mark on song two features a flute-led folk tune matched to bright keyboards and a darker element courtesy of Barre. Even the fanatical followers of this album complain about the drum solo/Zappa-esque section that starts at around 1:30 on song two, but that section is over and done with soon enough, and my real problem with the album is elsewhere. Fact is, regardless of how creative this album is - and it is awfully creative and enjoyable for the most part - it's hard not to notice that most of the ideas presented on the first song are merely repeated on the second song, albeit with slight alterations in most cases. Now, the prog-head will argue that this was a brilliant way to link these songs together into a cohesive whole (this is a concept album, after all). The other side of the coin is that maybe the band simply ran out of ideas or got lazy, but either way things get a bit redundant after awhile. Fortunately, as I've tried to point out, most of the album is pretty fascinating, and even the repeated parts throw in enough little twists and turns to keep things from ever getting really stale or monotonous. Though the album asks a lot of its listeners, it has an ebb and flow to it that gradually makes sense, and ending the album by repeating the famous flute refrain was a stroke of genius. In short, though nobody really makes albums like this anymore (least of all Jethro Tull), after spending the better part of a week trying to fully absorb it my final conclusion is that I wish that they would.

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