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Jethro Tull - War Child CD (album) cover


Jethro Tull


Prog Folk

3.30 | 753 ratings

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Prog Reviewer
2 stars Even if I live to be a hundred I'll never figure these guys out. Sometimes they're the undisputed prog world wrestling champions and at other times they're like a bunch of renegades from the local high school "Jazz 'R Us" ensemble who've put together an experimental, avant garde combo just to bug their teacher. After creating two of progressive rock's most adventurous endeavors back-to-back (the amazing "Thick as a Brick" and the somewhat misunderstood but nonetheless brilliant "Passion Play") Ian Anderson and his merry men took a drastic detour back into the cultural mainstream and I'm puzzled as to why. It's not as if they weren't selling LPs and cassettes by the truckload. Both of those epic albums reached #1 on the Billboard chart. Perhaps it was a matter of success going to their heads because the only thing they lacked was a hit single in heavy rotation on the AM radio dial. It's like their prog-minded muse took a leave of absence to tan on the sunny beaches of Barbados and was replaced by the stogie-chewing, megalomaniac General Jack D. Ripper from "Dr. Strangelove." Maybe it was the distraction caused by Ian not being happy with being a revered rock star and yearning to become a movie mogul. Who knows? But whatever the reason, this record is such a drastic downgrade, especially in the quality of the material, that it boggles the brain.

Let's start with the hideous cover art, shall we? It's not only one of the most unappealing ever to appear in the record bins; it's easily their most unflattering since the bizarre band photo that appeared on their debut in '69. Looks like someone dropped a tab of purple haze and locked themselves in the photo lab. In any case, it serves well as a warning for the low-rent compositions that lurk inside the sleeve. With only a few bright exceptions, the songs are barely above amateur status in fidelity and reveal a dearth of both imagination and inventiveness within the group at the time.

At least they put a good foot forward with the title cut, "War Child." The listener is greeted by the sound of WWII air raid sirens and death-carrying missiles streaking across the sky, leading one to think that you might be in for another intriguing concept album from the boys. This piano-based tune features an unusual chord progression and a lively melody to go over it. Anderson's raw saxophone offers a break from their normal flute-heavy approach and the luscious string score gives the number a pompous bravado befitting the satirical lyrics. I get the feeling that Ian was disgusted by the carefree, devil-may- care "dance the days and dance the nights away" attitude that permeated hip society in the mid 70s. "No unconditional surrender, no armistice day/each night I'll die in my contentment and lie in your grave," he sings. Alas, that opening cut is one of the few perks to be found. "Queen and Country" is next and despite the inclusion of a playful accordion the song is too weak to fend for itself. Ian strains his voice repeatedly to hit the loftier notes and the plodding beat is a drag to endure. The words have something to do with sailors at sea for "five long years" but it has no pertinent point to make.

When JT opts for a more acoustic approach the results are rewarding more often than not and such is the situation with "Ladies." The number's prog folk slant is satisfying and Anderson's observations about girls involved in the oldest profession are cleverly tongue- in-cheek. "With a smile and a glimpse of pink knees and elbows/of satin and velvet/good ladies, good fortune," he warbles with a wink. Yet, for some strange reason, they tack on a rock & roll coda that has nothing to do with anything. Oddness for odd's sake doesn't impress me. "Back-door Angels" starts out well enough but the inexcusable looseness of the track efficiently erodes any charm the tune might have possessed. Martin Barre's grating guitar is predictably distracting and the song's jerky arrangement is atrocious and incoherent. It's the bad side of Jethro Tull bulging out rudely like the belly of a couch potato. "Why do the faithful have such a will to believe in something?" he asks. Methinks he was addressing his loyal fans who thought the group walked on water.

On "Sea Lions" Barriemore Barlow's drums have the tone of cardboard boxes, retarding the number's attempt to be a rocker because there is absolutely no groove to be found. There's no cohesiveness in the writing and it comes off as a collection of random musical ideas forced to try to live together in an efficiency apartment. Ian compares himself to a circus performer. "But you know, after all, the act is wearing thin/as the crowd grows uneasy and the boos begin/but you balance the world on the tip of your nose/you're a sea lion with a ball at the carnival," he muses. That line may be the key to understanding why this album is such a mess and if not for the next cut the whole project would have crashed and burned like the Hindenburg. "Skating Away on the Thin Ice of the New Day," is like a brief glimpse of glory. It's an excellent tune all the way around and a prime example of how this band can combine a variety of acoustic instruments to conjure magic. It gradually picks up momentum like a sled on a gentle slope and the lyrics are stunningly poetic. "Well, do you ever get the feeling that the story's too damn real/and in the present tense/or that everybody's on the stage/and it seems like you're the only person sitting in the audience?" he expounds.

The infamous "Bungle in the Jungle" follows and it's a slap in the face. This trite ditty's memorable melody is wasted on the prog equivalent of "Yummy, yummy, yummy, I've got love in my tummy." This demeaning staple of classic rock radio is even the butt of jokes on TV sitcoms and an ugly blemish on Jethro Tull's legacy. It's as embarrassing, if not more so, than the Doors' egregious "Hello, I Love You." You fellas want a hit single? So be it. Careful what you wish for, that's all I gotta say. As the inane words state plainly, "the monkeys seem willing to strike up the tune." To be involved in the music biz (especially in the prog category) an artist has to have a thick hide when it comes to critics in general but evidently they burrowed under Anderson's skin and he felt compelled to pen the acoustic "Only Solitaire" as a rebuttal. It lasts less than a minute and a half yet that's long enough for him to get his sucker punch in by imitating their brutal assessment of himself. "Court-jesting, never-resting/he must be very cunning/to assume an air of dignity/and bless us all with his oratory prowess," he croons snidely. I'm sure the reviewers at Rolling Stone were truly humbled that he would pay so much attention to their heckling.

"The Third Hurrah" sports a militaristic marching beat as it reprises the catchy "War Child" theme. John Evan's employment of a harpsichord and David Palmer's stirring string orchestration is refreshing, making me wish more of this album was as entertaining. "Seek that which within lies waiting to begin/the fight of your life that is every day," Ian sings with rare insight. The closer, "Two Fingers," belies the truth that the band was running low on material (it's a reworking of an "Aqualung" reject). It sounds like a 4- track demo and is yet another instance of too many disconnected snippets and riffs that don't play well together. Even the lyrics hark back to the tired railing-against-God motifs that Anderson plundered three albums earlier. "I'll see you at the weighing in/when your life's sum total's made/and you set your wealth in goodly deeds/against the sins you've laid," he sings. Life's a bitch and then you die. We got it, bro, move on.

I've said it before in other reviews and I'll say it again. Being a defender of Jethro Tull's music isn't easy because for every "Stand Up" masterpiece there's a dud like this one to try to explain away. Consistency was just not one of their outstanding characteristics, it would seem, so traversing the open field of their aural art requires keeping a keen eye out for land mines. When they were on their game they were superbly unique and beyond reproach but when they were in a creative slump like they were on "War Child" they were grossly mediocre and average, at best. Bungle in the Jungle, Ian? Come now. Surely we deserved better than that. Take it back. Please. 2.3 stars.

Chicapah | 2/5 |


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