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Jethro Tull - Rock Island CD (album) cover


Jethro Tull


Prog Folk

2.71 | 524 ratings

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The Whistler
Prog Reviewer
1 stars (Falling on 1.5)

Under Wraps is generally regarded as the worst album in Jethro Tull history. And, well, there's a good reason for that. In fact, there're a few good reasons for that. But I contend that it's this album that was, in fact, the most useless Tull album I've ever heard, if not the most useless prog album. That I've ever heard. At least. Uh, review time!

We open with "Kissing Willie," which is a really bad number! It's a little different than "Steel Monkey" because it useless mandolins instead of keyboards. And it sucks. Not because of the subject matter (if you've no stomach for naughty songs, why're you listening to Tull?); it sucks because of the forgettable soloing, and the uninspired riff. So it's played on a flute. Big deal. "The Rattlesnake Trail" has a little more charm I guess, but it's hardly better. In fact, some days I can't tell the difference between the two.

Now, I thought things were gonna take an upswing with "Ears of Tin," a quick break from the radio metal. Yeah. A ballad, and it's pleasant! Gentle folksy strumming. Nope. Why would Ian give us something nice? It takes a turn for the worse in the chorus with some dreadful guitar noise and, arguably Ian's worst vocals, and when the verse starts up again, you wonder if it was ever that good. Oh, wait, it's a mini-epic (actually, since it's less than five minutes, it's a mini-mini-epic), so we have a second movement, "Mainland Blues." And it's...alright. In fact, yeah! Call them mainland blues Marty! And then Marty calls in some of the most laughable soloing you ever heard. Ugh. Too bad, the tune was decent, as is proven when Ian steps in with the flute to save Marty's pasty English butt. Remember when the rest of the band didn't necessarily need Ian to be good? Now, he's their only hope. And, while the concept of a lone flautist pulling his prog rock band through the eighties under his own steam does hold a sort of hopeless romanticism, considering Ian's new sense of melody and voice, it just can't be a good thing.

"Undressed to Kill" is one of the dopier bits of heavy met-Tull in existence. It's "Steel Monkey" part two. I can't even remember anything about it, just that Ian sings higher on that one. "Rock Island" is another ballad. And, you know what? It's boring. As sin. It's just a slow version of "Mountain Men."

"Heavy Water" is just as, if not more, dopey than "Undressed," but at least it's sort of catchy. But the lyrics? "It's no night to be out dancing in a party town." Ugh. "Another Christmas Song" was my great white hope for this album, as I'd heard the Christmas Album version previously. And I'm so glad I did. This version is about ten times as schlocky and laughable. That point where Ian's vocals slow down, it gets all quiet, and then...THE DRUMS EXPLODE! What is this, the Transiberian Orchestra? Oh well. It is possible to take some emotion from it. Good luck.

Perversely enough, my sympathies still lie with the longer numbers. "The Whaler's Dues" is built around a decent, ominous riff...or maybe I like it 'cause it sounds just like the riff from "In the Flesh." Gotta love the concept though; a man is jailed for blowing up a whale. Or something. "Can you forgive me? NO!" How un-PC, eh? You have to admit, Ian's pretty socially neutral. Of course, you still have to sit through a boring introduction, but at least it leaves on a high note: Marty's soloing steps up from third-rate radio metal to second rate! I mean, it's still an awful song, but on this album, it's the best song you're gonna get.

"Big Riff and Mando," wow. I don't even want to talk about that. Sometimes it's quiet, sometimes it's loud. It's almost decent when it's quiet, but absolutely moronic when it's not. "A little slow in the brain box?" That's for sure. And "Strange Avenues" ends the album on the worst note possible. Pointless atmosphere, an ending that chokes to death on itself, a dull as dirt introduction (that sounds suspiciously like "Rock Island"); and what's with this reference to Aqualung? No Ian, please don't remind me. It's painful enough.

Alright, so this isn't the absolute worst record imaginable. I mean, the two longer numbers are sort of fascinating in their hit and miss philosophy. Sometimes I just like to listen to the instrumental mid-section of "Ears," or the wailing solos on "Whaler" and try to imagine what could have been. And it's not like the instruments are played particularly badly or...well, the flute at least is actually pretty good. Just latch onto that.

However, there are still two major things wrong with this album, and right now, I'm going to talk about them: First, not many artists take the term "progress" literally. King Crimson, Frank Zappa, these guys did. They changed their styles as often as they changed their underwear (although I think Fripp sometimes just flipped his. Underwear, not style). Tull was another such band. Can you think of any two Tull albums in a row that sound truly alike? No. Not even Songs and Horses, the closest of any Tuller records, take the same approach to folk prog.

But Rock Island sounds exactly like Crest of a Knave. EXACTLY. No, wait, that's not right. It doesn't sound exactly like Crest, because Crest didn't take itself so deathly seriously, and at least pretended like it had a mild amount of variety with the country- ish edge and the folksy art pop. Island ONLY takes the radio metal and dull ballads. So Rock Island is, in fact, REGRESSIVE rock. Reg-rock, if you will. Okay, so re-recording an old "favorite" isn't necessarily the most sinful thing in the world. Half a point off I guess, for a prog band at least. But there's more.

There are some albums that are so good, you can't choose a favorite track. Then there are really good albums, but the best song is clear. But there are albums so bad, that's there's only one option for best song. And then there's Rock Island, where everything is so evenly bad, I can't choose a real best song. There is no song on this album that's actually good! Like, I might give some praise to "Whaler's Dues" and "Ears of Tin," but in truth, neither one is solidly, thoroughly good. In other words, if I was going to make a best of Tull record, there is no song on this album that I would consider. Nope. Not even "Heavy Water!" None of it would even come into my head, except to say, "Oh, let's NOT take something off Rock Island." Please, take THIS record, put IT Under Wraps, then toss it off your own personal Rock Island.

(Okay, what the crap? There's something off in the universe. How come Heavy Horses has such mediocre bonus tracks, and this thing has...alright, I'm getting ahead of myself. When I first saw the bonus track listing, I figured, "Oh good. I get to hear the radio met-Tull live versions of some nice old songs. Wowee skippers, what a treat. I'm being sarcastic." But then, I put 'em on. Holy carp, what a shock. These aren't exactly live tracks; I mean, they are live runs, but in front of a microphone, not an audience. More important, this proves that they hadn't lost it. Not completely. And by "they," I mean Ian, Martin and Dave, no drum machines or such. "Christmas Song" is, well, "Christmas Song." No Santa/bottle part though. "Cheap Day Return/Mother Goose" is a short medley of the two songs (I TOLD you those things flowed perfectly on the album). That's not bad at all, with even the heartbreaking stutter in "Cheap" left in place. Ah, but, "Locomotive Breath?" That's great. Martin actually plays his metal well. In fact, this version sometimes excites me more than the one on Little Light Music. Kinda short, but dig that hilarious ending. For the past twenty years, the Tullers have never had to actually END "Breath," it always became "Aqualung" or "Protect and Survive" or whatever (or had the common decency to fade out), and they don't know what to do, so they just play everything they've got! Now, it is only three tracks, and they probably aren't that good, but I think raising this to a 2 is plausible. Too bad the rest of the record sucks.)

The Whistler | 1/5 |


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