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Jethro Tull - Crest of a Knave CD (album) cover


Jethro Tull


Prog Folk

3.23 | 609 ratings

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3 stars One can't help but feel a bit sorry for Jethro Tull in the wrong-place-at-the-wrong-time case of "Crest of a Knave." After the indiscriminate MTV virus that gutted prog had infected and adversely affected the three albums they'd released since the 80s decade began and the tour to support 84's "Under Wraps" record had strained Ian Anderson's voice so much that it required surgery to repair they finally put out a disc in late '87 worthy of their legacy. Yet it goes on to become famous not for its content but for earning a Grammy award that metalheads the world over felt they stole from Metallica. As if they had anything to do with it! I wouldn't be surprised if Ian's reaction was something along the lines of "I struggled through rehab to get my voice back for this crappy notoriety?" The fact is, "Crest of a Knave" is one of their better efforts overall and easily the best they'd done since the delightful "Heavy Horses" came out in '78.

During their 3-year hiatus the group had dwindled to trio status with Anderson taking over synthesizer duties, original member Martin Barre still wielding various guitars and Dave Pegg on bass. Since real drums had become optional studio hardware for Jethro Tull since the 70s ended they didn't even feel the need to have a full-time stickman on the staff. While I'm no fan of drum machines I can understand why they were such an attraction in that era. Yes, they lacked soul but they also didn't talk back or show up late, they played exactly what you programmed them to play and they infallibly kept the tempo perfect. Plus, everybody was experimenting with them in those days to some extent or another so I look at them more as a sign of the times than as a deliberate cop-out. The album opener, "Steel Monkey," is anchored by fake drums but they don't detract from what turns out to be quite an impressive song. The tune benefits from an intriguing chord progression and Barre's guitar work has a lot of pizzazz and bite. "Farm on the Freeway" is next and a flesh & blood drummer, Doane Perry, does the honors of guiding the track. His subtle groove lays the groundwork for this entertaining number that grows stronger while gaining momentum. The song incorporates the classic Tull style and blends it with modern instrumentation while the lyrics about urban sprawl are poignant. "They forgot they told us what this old land was for/grow two tons the acre, boy, between the stones/this was no Southfork, it was no Ponderosa/but it was the place that I called home," Ian muses wistfully. "Jump Start" is a bluesy, acoustic guitar-driven tune that would've been more effective had they maintained its initial low profile instead of over-rocking it up unnecessarily.

"She Said She Was a Dancer" is a mellower cut that reminds me very much of one of my favorite bands of that era, Dire Straits, especially in Anderson's vocal approach. I don't find that aroma to be a detriment but I have no doubt that his preference for the lower register in his singing was a direct, unavoidable consequence of his throat problems. The tune itself is interesting but not all that engaging. Things get proggier with "Dogs in the Midwinter." It has an involved arrangement that's a throwback to their earlier days when their folk influences made for highly inventive prog rock, were prominently showcased and allowed them to take the music world by storm. The ten-minute epic "Budapest" follows and it's the apex of the album. It begins with them creating a haunting aura that beguiles and captivates in an inviting way. Once again there's a palpable Mark Knopfler spirit detected in both Ian's voice and in Martin's guitar technique but it doesn't come off as cheap mimicry. I thoroughly enjoy how the number steadily evolves and builds in complexity and how the superb acoustic guitar work adds a classy excitement to the proceedings. The sly words manage to be witty without becoming crass when describing a young woman's alluring charms. "Yes, and her legs went on forever/like staring up at infinity/through a wisp of cotton panty/along a skin of satin sea," he croons lustfully. This tune is a prime example of prog folk done properly.

"Mountain Men" follows and its relaxed opening leads to a heavier rock motif reminiscent of their Aqualung phase (one I didn't particularly care for) but, thankfully, not as brittle and edgy in tone. There's nothing wrong with their performance on this cut but there's little I find to latch onto that's memorable or above average. The song's mysterious ending is the highlight of the track. "The Waking Edge" is a step up in that I could readily relate to its melancholy atmosphere and bittersweet flavor. It's a somewhat droll ballad but it has a certain charm that draws me in. Or maybe it's just that I'm a hopeless sucker for heartbreaking lines like "Well, you know, I felt her in my dream last night/strange how the sheets are warm beside me/now, how do I catch the waking edge?/as it slips to the far and wide of me." Anyone who's experienced that incurable inner ache can commiserate with his pain. The closer is "Rising Steam," a restrained rocker that prominently features Barre's gritty electric guitar but eventually shows all the earmarks of being filler material included more out of necessity than artistic expression.

By garnering the first-ever Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance or Instrumental trophy at the Grammys, a ceremony the band didn't even bother to attend, they made indelible music history with "Crest of a Knave." Obviously the sheltered elite that made up the lion's share of the voting bloc were clueless as to what the category was created for because Jethro Tull has only skirted the outer boundaries of hard rock and has never ventured into metallic territories. But that fact, as always, didn't stop the academy members from making utter fools of themselves. However, if you're a fan of Anderson & Co. but have avoided this infamous album due to its cruel fate and undeserved reputation I suggest you give it a fair listen before judging it. I think you'll like what you hear. 3.3 stars.

Chicapah | 3/5 |


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