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Jethro Tull - Songs From The Wood CD (album) cover

SONGS FROM THE WOOD

Jethro Tull

 

Prog Folk

4.17 | 955 ratings

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Chicapah
Prog Reviewer
3 stars According to Forrest Gump, his momma repeatedly told him that life was akin to a box of chocolates. She also might've been describing the sundry albums of Jethro Tull. In the last few years I've been giving this respected grand champion steer of the progressive folk movement another hard look (after being estranged from them for decades) and in so doing I don't think I've ever found a band to be more confounding and inconsistent. On every trip to the local used LP vendor I've endeavored to pick up one of their records to hear what I missed and I can inform you that, indeed, I never know what I'm gonna get. It's a crap shoot. In the case of "Songs from the Wood" I hoped for a bulging pouch of toasty nuts like those I found within the vinyl grooves of "Heavy Horses." Alas, I came away scratching my noggin in befuddlement. What I've come to realize is that when it comes to this eclectic bunch one man's scoop of poodle poop is another man's treasure and, more often than not, I end up savoring most sometimes what others don't care much for at all. To quote the king of Siam, "'Tis a puzzlement."

The album's rustic cover painting doesn't mislead, though. This was obviously a wholehearted attempt on their part to get back to the existential fundamentals upon which the group was erected and the opener, "Songs from the Wood," starts things trotting off gallantly in that direction. The song's intricate a capella harmony vocal arrangement is entertaining and leads you to believe that Ian Anderson and his merry men are about to "bring you love from the field/poppies red and roses filled with summer rain/to heal the wound and still the pain/that threatens again and again/as you drag down every lover's lane." The group dutifully jumps in after a bit and tightly performs the tune's colorful, complex patterns with nary a snag and the wide variety of instrumentation used in the production allows for fascinating listening. All in all, this polished gem contains all the ingredients that make Jethro Tull so unique and worthwhile. Too bad they can't keep it up.

The all-Ian-all-the-time "Jack-in-the-Green" is next and if nothing else this one-man tour de force shows beyond any reasonable doubt that Anderson was, is and always will be the guts and bolts of this band. He plays and sings everything on this cut and that's all well and good but, unfortunately, it's a rather unmemorable ditty. Maybe he was trying to tell us that the Cub Scout troop leader role isn't all it's hyped up to be when he intones the line "It's no fun being Jack-in-the-Green/no place to dance, no time for song." (Ugh.) "Cup of Wonder" follows and it's prototype 70s folk rock that's only missing the pizzazz. The song's riff-verse-chorus formula is repeated before they toss in the obligatory instrumental bridge and then they predictably close out with another repeat of the beginning sequence. Yada, yada, yada. I'd rather they be bold and risk ramming the rocks than to bore me into a stupor. I can usually find something in Ian's lyrics when his music fails me but not this time. It's as if between takes he grabbed a rhyming dictionary off the shelf and jotted down some random sentences. (Mmmph.)

Barriemore Barlow's energetic, highly detailed drumming distinguishes the intro to "Hunting Girl" and, while it's no thrill ride, it's definitely a welcome step in the right direction at this juncture. Since both John Evans and David Palmer are listed as the keyboard wizards in the credits I'm not sure who did what and when but they brighten the complicated verse structure considerably and the song's instrumental sections sound more like the entire entourage got to contribute and, therefore, were more fun to play. (Belch.) The words describing a seize-the-moment tryst on the heather shared by a commoner and an upper-crust lass are refreshingly clever. "She took this simple man's downfall in hand/I raised the flag that she unfurled," he sings with tongue-firmly-planted-in- cheek. The title of the next track, "Ring Out, Solstice Bells," would, understandably, cause one to brace for a sugary smearing of sticky schmaltz but it rises to the challenge and easily surpasses that low expectation. The perky 7/8 time signature they employ for the verses and the big, full choruses make this song a delight. The piano work is excellent throughout and the Christmassy climax with bells a chimin' is downright heavenly. Every once in a while these boys surprise the hell out of me.

On "Velvet Green" they demonstrate, once again, their proficiency for mixing modern instruments with traditional ones like mandolins and lyres to create the inimitable Jethro Tull sound. Okay, that's no news flash but give me a break. I'm grasping at straws here. At least the tune's unpredictable arrangement keeps things from stagnating completely. The passable lyrics portray the enviable lifestyle of a carefree country Don Juan "who's a young girl's fancy and an old maid's dream" that goes about sowing his "wild oat seed" indiscriminately. (Meh.) "The Whistler" features energetically strummed acoustic guitars that lay a brisk-paced foundation underneath some very lively whistles and synths. I like the way they kept the drums down in the mix, allowing the music to flow atop its natural momentum. Maybe they were trying to divert your attention away from the less-than- pensive words.

Ostracize me if you want but I've never been a fan of guitarist Martin Barre. He's functional and pedestrian, at best, and often he's as annoying as a swarm of vampire gnats as he is on "Pibroch (Cap in Hand)." Here he's fascinated with the neat-o delay/echo effect he over- utilizes on the introduction and at other points. It grows old quickly. The song then drops into being a bluesy dirge of sorts and, in case you missed it the first time, they rerun the Martin Barre Show again. The first instrumental break arrives but it only induces a yawn as you keep waiting for something interesting to burst out of the cage this number is trapped in. Suddenly it happens and you're treated to a sprightly movement involving flutes, whistles, and mandolins followed by madrigal-styled keyboards and it's like sunshine streaming through a break in cloudy skies. (Where were they hiding this and why?) The excitement is short-lived, though, and they lazily return to the original feel and theme. (Fffftttt.) At least they end the album on an upswing with the simpler "Fire at Midnight." Barre's bull-in-a-china-closet guitar almost ruins the mood but he exercises a crumb of restraint and Anderson's unpretentious ode to the joys of home life manages to survive Martin's rude intervention. "Me, I'll sit and write this love song/as I all too seldom do/build a little fire this midnight/it's good to be back home with you," Ian sings contentedly. (Ripppp.)

If you're new to Jethro Tull I must warn you that they're prone to being as hit and miss as a pre-school point guard. Having said that, discovering their masterpieces like "Stand Up" and "Thick as a Brick" as well as their highly satisfactory outings such as "Heavy Horses," "Passion Play" and "Benefit" are well worth the effort. But prepare to be underwhelmed by albums like this one along the way, too. Technical merits notwithstanding, "Songs from the Wood" is sorta like taking in an exhibition of an esteemed painter's canvases but being impressed only with the quality of the frames. The tunes are recorded expertly, there's not a note out of place and there's no denying that they put a great deal of effort into making it something they could be proud of yet it fails to ascend above the rank of mediocre. And, for a prog reviewer such as myself, it was a nightmare to fairly assess. So please excuse the classless incidental fart and burp noises that bullied their way into this essay. I couldn't help it. I was gassy. That stuff happens every time I'm beset by the acute ennui that results from trying to pen a decent review for albums like "Songs from the Wood." There were no lasting moments of ecstasy to shower with glowing adjectives and, conversely, there were no instances of pure inanity to mercilessly assault and poke fun at with semi-literate daggers. Makes for a critique as unremarkable as the album it addresses and, to me, that's a fate worse than garlic breath. 2.5 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |

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