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Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Jethro Tull - Songs From the Wood

Jethro Tull
Songs From the Wood
1977

Songs From the Wood, in particular, is an album that, for all the band members, was a reaffirmation of our Britishness. (Ian Anderson)

Praise be to the distant sister sun. (Ring Out, Solstice Bells)

Quick - name two popular hard rock bands that incorporated the flute as an integral part of their sound. If you're like me you probably got as far as Jethro Tull and gave up. Maybe I'm missing an obvious one.

Jethro Tull became something of a punchline for a while after the 1989 Grammys, when their Crest of a Knave album beat Metallica's ...And Justice for All in the Grammy Award for Best Metal Performance category. It was a ridiculous development that surprised the members of both bands and anyone else who had a notion of what heavy metal actually was. None of which should overshadow the achievements of a band that gave the world such rock milestones as Thick as a Brick, A Passion Play, and of course, Aqualung.

By 1989, I had already moved on and my Jethro Tull years were about a decade past. I remembered Songs From the Wood as being a pretty good album and one that I listened to quite often back when. But until recently I hadn't sat down and listened to it after a gap of nearly forty years. Like so many things that seemed nifty keen back when I figured it wouldn't hold up. So it came as something of a surprise as the album unspooled (on YouTube on a Kindle Fire - my well-worn vinyl copy parked on the shelf about three feet away) and I realized that it was much, much, much better than I had remembered it. So good that it might even merit a fourth "much". A Rolling Stone reviewer once remarked that this "may well have been the group's best record ever". I haven't heard all of the band's albums but I can't imagine one that might top this one.

Jethro Tull was no stranger to concept albums, having already turned out several by this time. Songs From the Wood wasn't quite a concept album, in the sense that it told one coherent story from start to finish. But the songs therein were all focused on a specific theme, which you could boil down to English country life, with the emphasis on folklore and mythology. It was the England of solstice celebrations, standing stones, May Day parades, wicker men, druids, fertility rites, and whatnot.

There's not really a dud in the bunch but side one (for those of us who grew up listening to those vinyl copies) is probably the better of the two, by a hair. Songs From the Wood kicks things off in fine fashion with a sometimes heavyish and other times folkish approach and topnotch harmonies. Jack-in-the-Green is mostly guitar and flute, with a slightly darker and more acoustic feel and is a keen little snippet of song, while Cup of Wonder hearkens back more closely to the title track. Hunting Girl is the odd song out here being a heavier tune about a wealthy woman who veers from a hunting party to consort with the hired help. Ring Out, Solstice Bells closes out side one with a very catchy paean to the solstice.

Side two kicks off with Velvet Green, which alternates between a lyrical and somewhat darker tone, with subject matter that hearkens back to Hunting Girl. Casual Jethro Tull fans are probably most likely to have heard The Whistler out of all the songs here. Of the few singles that were released from the album it’s the one that seems to have been the most successful. Up next is the longest and perhaps the heaviest song on the album - Pibroch (Cap In Hand). Pibroch being a type of traditional Scottish music and consequently Martin Barre's guitar is made to resemble bagpipes (well, sort of). The proceedings conclude with the quietest song of the bunch, with the aptly reflective title of Fire at Midnight.

Top Tracks
It's tough to narrow it down to a few favorites but if I had to, I'd go with (a near photo-finish) Ring Out, Solstice Bells, very closely followed by Cup of Wonder.


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