17. Jethro Tull

What do I know about Jethro Tull?  Ian Anderson is famous for being one of history's few highly-regarded rock flutists ("flautist" is not the preferred term).  I don't know if he is also the singer, but I think he is.  No idea who any of the other band members are.  I know their song "Aqualung", and I've also heard "Living In The Past", which Midge Ure of Ultravox / Visage / Rich Kids did a mediocre cover of on one of his solo albums.  I don't think I know any of their other songs or anything else about this band.  Seems likely they were named after the 18th century agriculturist who invented machines to make seeding easier.  This guy made our lives better, but also laid foundations for the industrial revolution, which has now now lead us directly into the climate emergency... but also modern health care technology.  It's complicated.  But the band chose the name in like the late sixties.  Let's consider their choice in the context of their era.  Is this going to be hippie rock about growing plants?

As always, the only research I did before writing today was a quick web search for "best Jethro Tull album".  Didn't even read the reviews, just skimmed the album titles, so that I'd remain in the dark as much as possible before listening.  This series is all about tabula rasa listening, my friends.  See my C O N T E X T  post for details.  Clicking on the first seven listicles that popped up, I found that Aqualung and Thick As A Brick always occupied the top two spots, with Brick having a slight edge, occupying the #1 spot four times.  Six different albums occupied the third-place spot; only Songs From The Wood held the #3 slot more than once.  It would seem that listening to Thick As A Brick today would be a no-brainer, but a little bit of key information did manage to work its way into my grey matter while skimming these lists: Thick As A Brick is one long song, divided in half (one half on each side of the original LP).  Yeah, I'm not really up for that.  The title track on Aqualung is one of the two Tull songs that I'm familiar with, so we're going there.

As for the chosen version, there are a bewildering number of reissues of this record.  The Steve Hoffman remaster from 1997 (DCC GZS-1105) is by far the best-rated; this is unsurprising since Hoffman generally does good work, and the late 1990s were a golden era for good mastering (see my Aerosmith post for a little more on this).  

If you can't find the rare Hoffman master, the other two best regarded versions seem to be Chrysalis  610 016-217 (Sanyo variant; 1986) pressed in Japan for the Euro-market, and Chrysalis CDP 32 1044 2 (Swindon pressing; 1994)... which is called the 25th anniversary edition, even though it is the 23rd anniversary edition.  The real 25th Anniversary Edition was also released by Chrysalis, just a year before the Hoffman master: Chrysalis 7243 8 52213 2 3 (1996).  It is widely regarded as trash.  So much for relying on 1990s masters.  This is way too much drama to manage for a record I've never heard and probably won't like, but we have to wonder why this record was completely remastered in 1994, 1996, and 1997, among many other efforts.

...ANNNND, the other go-to version is the 2016 Steven Wilson remix, which Tull fans seem to be losing their minds with joy over. That's shocking.  You'd think  that purists would eschew disruption of the holy relics.   But we all know that Wilson has a reputation for doing a nice job remixing a lot of classic records (such as by XTC and Ultravox within my usual listening realm, and lots more).  His work is of high quality, but more often than not, I'd prefer to hear a great mastering job on the original mix of a record I like or love, rather than someone messing with the original mix.  For today's listening,  I wanted to hear the original mix in its best possible master of a record I have no opinion about at all.  So it's the Hoffman '97.  If I end up liking this record, perhaps I'll listen to the Wilson mix.

Jethro Tull
Aqualung (1971) 
Version: DCC GZS-1105


So there's this creepy homeless guy on the front (and back) cover of the album.  The title track launches directly into describing this man's life.  Sometimes seen as someone deserving of our sympathy, he's also painted as a perv watching the young girls run by.  Many of us view people like the titular Aqualung with a combination of pity and revulsion.  Is that the guy's name?  Wonder why Anderson chose that name?  Aqualung.  Not a common name.  If it's a metaphor for something, I'm not getting it.  Maybe Anderson is considering our own judgmental nature here; the singer calls Aqualung his friend and acknowledges that he man is in pain and dying; perhaps the bit about watching the kids is an example of the aspersions that we cast upon the homeless so we don't feel bad about not helping them.  This opening guitar riff is iconic.  There's some stuff happening in the background with acoustic guitar and keyboards that feels messy; maybe it's so low in the mix because the arrangement wasn't really working.  When a second guitar comes in it overpowers the first; this also feels like a bit of slop in the mixing.  The two electric guitars needed to have been the same volume, blending together as one.  Ok, now I wonder if Steve Wilson fixed that [edit: he did!].  Then the song breaks down to a radically quieter vibe and a heavily filtered "radio voice" with lots of delay effects.  Yes, it seems that the earlier bit is our view of the homeless as sinister, then we get so the sympathetic part.  The tempo picks up again and the song almost becomes joyful as the singer describes Aqualung's physical pain.  Maybe these three sections represent the evolution of our perspective from mistrust to empathy to hope for his survival.  The guitar solo that comes in next is fairly rote.  There is nothing wrong with it, but also nothing about it that earns its length.  When the rhythm section switches groove halfway through (4m 12s), it gives the extended instrumental some legs, but still this solo needed to have been half as long as it is (or less).  Now some "dee dee dee" vocals, and a bit more sentimental well-wishing for our poor old pal.  Then the rockin' part from the beginning comes back; it feels like they cut-and-pasted the first verse in here.  Today that would take ten seconds in a DAW; in 1971 it would have taken about ten minutes cutting tape.  Not a difficult process in either case.  The lyric of Aqualung is complex, with a few possible interpretations, and it certainly covers infrequently trod ground.  Musically the song has many ideas, but none of them are especially interesting... except for that iconic six-note guitar riff.  It is prog-ish in that it utilizes a lot of parts and changes and bits.  It keeps us on our toes by constantly switching direction.  But after listening to Meat Loaf for my previous post it feels like Jethro Tull needed to take a page from Meatloaf songwriter Jim Steinman's playbook when it comes to keeping long and multi-segmented songs engaging (I never, ever thought I'd find myself typing these words).  This one has the constant changes, but not enough ideas to fill those many segments with.  Fewer parts but with more good ideas per part would have been a better way to go.

Cross-Eyed Mary
Ah, so here is Anderson's lauded flute, with strings no less.  Ohh, are those strings from a Mellotron?  Gotta love a Mellotron.  Can't go wrong there.  This sounds like a psychedelic-era Beatles out-take.  Throw some backwards stuff on there, and it could be a b-side to "Strawberry Fields Forever".  So, that intro was interesting musically.  When the song kicks in, it really feels like an extension of "Aqualung".  Oh wait, this lyrical hook sounds familiar.  Was this song a single?  I think I may have heard this.  Is this song about a schoolgirl who hooks up with older men?  That's kinda gross.  Poor old Aqualung gets name-checked: he's watching the action.  Cross-Eyed Mary might be one of the little girls that Aqualung has been checking out.  So we've got kind of a seedy Jethro-verse of interrelated characters here.  We've already met more screwed up people in two songs than in a whole side of a 1970s Tom Waits album.  Actually, this album came out right around the same time as the first Waits album.  I wonder if Tom grew up listening to the first few Jethro Tull albums?  It's possible.  But he certainly doesn't seem to have drawn anything from Tull musically.  The alternating flute and guitar solos are nice.  Panning them opposite works.  At the end of the song they go into a more complex and more interesting version of that idea, expanding on it, but adding riffs from the piano and drum kit too.  Kinda cool.  This section could have gone on just a bit longer.

Cheap Day Return
This is a quick 85-second fragment of a folk song that seems to be a poignant little vignette about fame.  The singer meets a nurse and gives her an autograph, but wonders if she's equally enthusiastic about her patients.  Layered acoustic guitars and something else... maybe that Mellotron again?  The drum set and electric guitars are gone.  It's like a different band.  But thank Hoffman they got the mastering right.  How many albums have I listened to for this series while complaining that the acoustic numbers were too loud compared to the electric jams?  Several.  This one is balanced properly.

Mother Goose
This one has a bit of a Celtic feel.  These flutes.  They might be Anderson's flute layered, but really they sound like our old pal Mr. Mello again.  Could be a blend of both.  And this woody percussion.  Almost like an inexpertly played tabla. This band is like prog-folk but with Mellotron.  The tonality of this record is nice.  It's warm and woody with a lot of space in it; the fuzztone psychedelic guitars are using sparingly (such as the "Aqualung" riff) and provide effective contrast.  And, as if on cue, they pop up halfway through this tune, riffin' away.  Lyrically, is it possible that this song is told from the delusional Aqualung's point of view? Wandering the town, causing mischief but not realizing the implications, watching laborers and not participating in their work, thinking he's a schoolboy (disassociating from his current predicament and remembering his happier younger life), and looking at the schoolgirls (again with the schoolgirls; I'm starting to worry about getting arrested for playing this record); but maybe poor ol' Aqualung sees a better version of his life in them.  The girls are all sobbing "I don't believe they knew I was a schoolboy".  He was once one of their ilk.  But now his appearance makes them cry.  

Wond'ring Aloud
After "Aqualung" I thought I was in for a solid prog record, but the past three tunes are really folksy.  Well-recorded for the most part.  The acoustic guitar, piano, and strings on this song are smooth and warm sounding, and blend well.  Gotta cut that lip smacking at 1m 18s though.  I hate that.  Like "Cheap Day Return" this one is in and out in less than two minutes.  Say your piece and get out of dodge.  This is a sweet little thing about waking up in the morning with your sweet little thing.  You can't hate it, it's too kind-hearted a song, but it also avoids being too syrupy.  That's hard to balance.

Up to Me
We've got the acoustic guitar, hand percussion, and flutes again here, this time playing a kind of riffy acoustic groove.  The electric guitar just adds a few little moments, barely there.  This is like acoustic prog.  We don't hear that a lot.  As we reach the end of what was once side one, this music has some nice individual moments, but I'm not hearing any genius here.  Reasonably intriguing lyrics, enough studio trickery to keep it sonically interesting (and relevant to its times), nothing offensive about the playing or engineering, and I'm not hating it for being mawkish or low-effort (the people here meant it), but... the essential spark that might make it special isn't here.  That said, I'm starting to suspect that this is the kind of album that would get under one's skin after repeated listenings.  It's simplicity might be deceptive.  With the song "Aqualung" they might have been overreaching; when they're writing simpler songs with warm acoustic arrangements they seem to be channeling something more honest and seem like they're not trying so hard.  It is entirely possible that the music in any of the sixteen posts that preceded this one would also grow on me with time (well, except for Marillion), but in most cases I fairly seriously doubt it.  There seems to be an integrity to this music that belies its simplicity.  

My God
Ehhhh.... right.  I was just starting to consider that in the future I might possibly be on board with this band, but now we're getting a warning light.   This song appears to be about how modern people have corrupted the word of the Christian god or Jesus to fit their own needs.  That's all well and good, but I'm really not interested in religious lyrics.  I don't happen to be a Christian, and when we go down this lyrical road it really pushes me away.  Gods of any sort almost certainly do not exist.  One person trying to tell another that their ideas about how to interpret words written by archaic men but attributed to metaphorical supernatural beings is pretty much a futile philosophical path.  It's like trying to justify the notion of having a serious critical debate about your fantasy football team.  The music on this track goes back into some more rockin' territory with a pretty virtuoso flute solo in the middle.  It is impressive playing; this is the bit that probably earned Anderson his reputation.  There's a really obvious edit at 3m 42s though [another type of edit: the Wilson mix smooths it out a little], and then some choirs and overdubbed extra flutes are added.  It's pretty clear that the beginning of the flute solo was recorded at a completely different time and place compared to the second half.  The whole segment (which lasts a full 1m 50s) memorable musically, but the choirs reinforce the religious textures in this track.  The next song is called "Hymn 43", so I really hope we're not in for a suite of Jesus music here.  

Hymn 43
Yeah, we're in for a suite of Jesus music here.  "If Jesus saves, well He'd better save Himself / From the gory glory seekers who use His name in death".  So, more lyrics defending Jesus from those who corrupted earlier versions of their pretend friend's words.  You know, the words that weren't written down for 300 years after this death, and have been translated from one langauge to another a half-dozen times.  Was there any point at whic they weren't corrupted?  Same fairly predictable rock track backs it all up.

Another folksy quickie at just 76 seconds.  These guys give The Ramones a run for their money in the short songs department.  Ramones were always a great go-to for mix tapes when there wasn't enough tape left for a longer song at the end of a side. This band have two speeds; they're either playing essentially the same rock song over and over, or the same folksy thing over and over.  The last thirty seconds of this one consist of some queasy strings that sound like the transition between songs on an E.L.O. record... except in this case, they miss the opportunity to actually be that.  This band haven't done any segues between songs, but the outro to this song was a perfect opportunity to start.

Locomotive Breath
Speaking of Tom Waits, this one starts with a blusey barroom piano that seems lifted straight from early Waits.  Maybe the title of this one is also a description of Wait's hygiene during his prime drinkin' and smokin' years.  This tune has more religious metaphor.  Old Charlie appears: that's the devil.  The train that won't slow down is a description of your sins, Christians.  Ugh, I really spoke too soon when listening to "Up to Me" and saying that this record might grow on me.  Side two of this record feels like the same songs over and over but with church lyrics.  The flute solo in "My God" is something worth hearing, but other than that I may just listen to Wilson's mix of side one and then permanently lay this record to rest.  Ok, wait, this song jams a little toward the end.  There's another nice flute solo with some interesting studio effects behind it; layered guitars and maybe even a synthesizer for a sec.

Wind Up
Yeah, more God stuff.  Fuck.  I didn't know I was going to have to go to church today.  That's what I get for writing about these records without researching them first.  My idea of going into these records completely blind and writing my real-time impressions has resulted in some nice surprises, but this isn't one of them.  This shit is intolerable.  Can't even focus on the instrumentals; they're repetitive and the ones on side two are not even as interesting as the only marginally interesting stuff on side one.  Get me outta here.  Ok, this song is more than six minutes long.  I must stay here.  I must listen.  I'm not going to go pee.  I'm not going to look at my email.  I'm going to keep listening.  Are you reading this?  Fuck you.  Go away so I can cheat and stop typing.  How much of this song is left?  God damn, almost half.  Jesus fuckin' Christ.  This shit is from hell.  Ok, I'm gonna go fix typos in the previous parts of this post while this bullshit song runs out. 
Ha, he exclaims "Euuuuggghhh!" in the middle of the song.  
Bye again.

Song for the IFHTB mix tape:
Well, the title track is too long for a mix tape.  And its got this weird vibe that's just got too many moods to make it fit in with mix jams.  "Cross-Eyed Mary" might actually do the trick, but a deep cut like "Up to Me" could be the winner.

Lynrd Skynrd, coming January 01, 2022

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