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Jethro Tull - Heavy Horses CD (album) cover


Jethro Tull


Prog Folk

4.05 | 1244 ratings

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4 stars My relationship with Jethro Tull has been a rocky one ever since my friend Tommy Cline brought us together in 1970. While their scruffy but charming debut made for a good first impression, it was their brilliant "Stand Up" album that made me fall head over heels. My infatuation held fast and unshakable through their uneven "Benefit" but when they brazenly flirted with the unwashed masses on "Aqualung" I felt cruelly betrayed and stopped seeing them altogether. The nerve! I began to hold a childish but serious grudge and, just for spite, placed them in the same mental category as The Monkees. However, absence makes the heart grow fonder so in '75 after reading a positive review for "Minstrel in the Gallery" I purchased a copy to see if we could blow on the ashes of our affair and reignite the old flame. Unfortunately, the LP did nothing for me no matter how hard I tried to like it and I wrote them off forever. It was just not going to work between us. Or so I thought.

After discovering to my shocked delight that there are literally millions of proggers the world over some years back my dormant adoration for the genre was revived and I decided that it was high time to stop living in the past when it came to JT and make a new start, this time as "just friends." Discovering the majesty and near-perfection of "Thick as a Brick" was a revelation and delving into the eccentricities of the grossly misunderstood "Passion Play" was an enlightening adventure. In other words, I'm back on the Tull bandwagon. My bruised psyche and tender ego had caused me to miss out on a lot of music from Ian Anderson & Company and catching up will take a while but it should be fun. I realize that some of their material will be sub-standard but I've promised myself not to take it as a personal affront this go 'round. We all make mistakes (both artists and fans) and time heals even the most superficial of wounds.

I didn't expect much from "Heavy Horses" at all. That's what makes the surprise so special. It's everything I loved about them back in the day. The band charges right out of the gate with the extremely energetic "And the Mouse Police Never Sleeps" and they maintain a lofty standard of quality through the last note of the album. The opening song's admittedly busy but tight-as-new-shoes ¾ tempo and the wonderful synchronicity steadfastly upheld between the acoustic instrumentation throughout is dizzyingly mesmerizing. Drummer Barriemore Barlow could've taken the safe road here but he inventively opts to apply an unorthodox beat pattern that's a better fit for the novelty of the rhythm. There's a poetic life-as-viewed-from-a-rural-perspective lyrical theme running through most of the tracks and this one is no exception as Ian makes an observation that, while to humans the purring family feline may seem serene and docile, to rodents in general the terrible Tabby is a ruthless carnivore with a "license to mutilate." (I, myself, have been witness to such horrors. It can be quite ghastly.) Speaking of odes to nature's way, "Acres Wild" is next and it's far from being a letdown. The group's smooth but spirited attack and their tasteful blend of classic and modern instruments is yet another manifestation of what Jethro Tull does so very well when they're on their game.

I must admit that hearing Martin Barre's boisterous guitar slammin' headlong into the intro of "No Lullaby" for the first time filled me with apprehension in fear that they were about to descend into "Locomotive Breath" land (a place I don't care for). However, instead of taking the boringly predictable route they wisely open it up and let Barlow and bassist John Glascock set an unexpectedly ominous mood for this nearly 8-minute composition. There's lots of changes to be encountered along the way and the band tosses in some not- so-easy-to-pull-off kicks and accents to keep things lively. The number evolves constantly, never stagnating, and Anderson's flute flitters about like a ravenous hummingbird on a nectar binge. I appreciate the candor that Ian employs as he tells children stark truths about the dangerous world they're about to grow up in. "Keep your eyes open and prick up your ears/rehearse your loudest cry/there's folk out there who would do you harm/so I'll sing you no lullaby" he croons. Barre's deft mandolin work distinguishes "Moths" and I can never get enough of that instrument's uplifting tone. It's one of my all-time favorite things to hear. This tune about waltzing with the specter of death flows effortlessly and the orchestral strings dancing in the background are superb. "Life's too long (as the lemming said)," Anderson sings in a voice slightly reminiscent of Cat Stevens'.

"Journeyman" belies the group's bluesy roots but, like in their earliest incarnations, they never play it straight, choosing to throw a few quirks in the mix. It's a rueful commentary about the dull, robot-like participants of the monotonous urban rat race that could've turned into a tiresome dirge but for the splendidly solid performance turned in by the band and the addition of a string section that serves to enrich rather than clutter up the proceedings. A peppy introduction draws you helplessly into "Rover" where a gorgeous 12-string acoustic guitar fills the space with class. Written about a free-to-wander country canine ("I'm simple in my sadness/resourceful in remorse"), this is precisely the same brand of progressive folk/rock stylings that enraptured my senses four long decades ago. The same can be said for the following cut, "One Brown Mouse," a very melodic ditty where once again their delicate casserole of instruments creates an enchanted atmosphere unique to this collection of talented artists. Ian's imaginative lyrics about a simple caged pet are cleverly literate and wholly entertaining.

The album's 9-minute long namesake starts with a heavy hand but they tactfully go for taste over power and pretension early on and Anderson's stacked vocals are dreamily intoxicating. The production and arrangement are top-notch as they allow the song to take its own intricate, complex course but the resulting music never comes off as contrived or forced. The words are a bit of a lament about feeling old, outdated and left behind by modern technology as he compares himself and his mates to a herd of retired work horses "standing like tanks on the brow of the hill/up into the cold wind facing/in stiff battle harness, chained to the world/against the low sun rising." Fine, fine imagery there. They finish with "Weathercock," a tune right in step with the rest of the album that has mandolins, 12-string acoustic guitars, organ (supplied by the ever-present but easily overlooked John Evan) and flute layered over an aggressive bass and drum rhythm track. To describe it in any detail would involve repeating many of the same complimentary accolades I've written above so I'll just recommend that you sit back and enjoy the greatness of Jethro Tull here. There'll never be another of their kind.

Over the years this group has somehow become the butt of occasional jokes on TV and in the movies. If you're one who has come to judge them by that unfairness I beg you to consider that the bad rap comes mainly from the non-prog world and isn't based on fact. Yes, they are responsible for some questionable, passé offerings like "Bungle in the Jungle," but it would be a shame to identify their body of work on that silly piece of fluff as much as the travesty of basing one's image of The Doors solely on their dismal "Love Her Madly." This album represents well the Jethro Tull legacy and you'd do yourself a favor to acquire it and give it repeated listens. Is it a masterpiece? Probably not, but I just don't feel right in giving it any less than 4.4 stars (the upper tip of my 4 star rating). It's no "Thick as a Brick" or "Stand Up" but damned if I can find anything wrong with it. There's not a skipper in the bunch.

Chicapah | 4/5 |


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