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Jethro Tull - Rock Island CD (album) cover

ROCK ISLAND

Jethro Tull

 

Prog Folk

2.69 | 445 ratings

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thief
2 stars I always approach "Rock Island" with healthy enthusiasm, as if it was "Stormwatch Part II". Jethro Tull fully recovered from synthesizer aberrations, Ian's regained some of his voice strength and the album cover is full of promises: I love its dark, nautical art and find the "woodsy" bordering a good move (even though it just might be a fan service). My father had a pretty good collection of Jethro albums back then and when I was a kid, this was the latest release he owned. I also had good fun with putting them in chronological order or asking common questions about each LP. But I never asked why he stopped buying after "Rock Island", even though it was 1996 or so...

"Rock Island" is mostly a collection of straightforward rockers with prog/folk elements popping out only occasionally. "Kissing Willie" and "The Rattlesnake Trail" don't differ much, featuring rehashed riffs from hard rock era with well-played-but-too-predictable hooks throughout. "Undressed to Kill" follows the same path and that's where the problems really start piling up. Lazily approached blues rock never works for me, and "Undressed to Kill" gives the vibe of bunch of older men improvising at Graduation Anniversary/Class Reunion. It's overlong, sloppy, and Ian's voice really begins to sound ancient - like he suddenly got 20 years older. At least it doesn't get worse than this, as far as I'm concerned.

"Heavy Water" is too tame, although I like the solid main theme. Sadly it lacks direction and riffing never kicks off for good; guys should've put more effort in that one. "Big Riff and Mando" doesn't climb much higher, but despite silly lyrics I find the chorus charming and interesting. It'd work much better with one verse less, but instrumental parts intact.

"The Whaler's Dues" is a mixed bag as well. I like what they're trying to do here: slow buildup, relevant theme, shout-out to unabashed forces of nature, shooting for an epic feel. Unfortunately it lacks cohesion too often; some verses sound rather forced and unfocused, even when they quote "Child in Time". Angular guitar break at 4:00 never gets off the ground, we are treated with "more of the same" in the latter half. Soloing is quite worthy, but as a whole, "The Whaler's Dues" pales in comparison with its spiritual predecessor, "Flying Dutchman"... not too mention bona fide prog epics from seventies. Quite disappointing, it could've been the album's highlight.

But there is much more to "Rock Island" than letdowns just described. "Ears of Tin" evokes quite charming, "earthy" atmosphere and pairs it cunningly with uptempo all-out rocking. Very convincing flute performance, decent vocals and fresh sound - yes, please! The title track, "Rock Island", also succeeds in mysterious, nightly ambience and builds up fantastically - just check out that fast paced section at 3:00, pure gold, Jethro Tull in a great shape. I also favor "Another Christmas Song", beautiful throwback to band's earliest era, where Dickensian, X-mas related pieces were aplenty. It seems they never forgot how to deliver majestic winter tunes - and they proved it big-time in 2003.

Concluding song, "Strange Avenues", has a fitting title indeed. Look how sneaky it is, embrace its eerie nature and how it conjures rock grandeur in vintage, almost "Minstrel in the Gallery" style. Maybe I'm flattering too much, but honestly, give it a spin and tell me that first instrumental half isn't praiseworthy, at least in context of Jethro's average 80s material.

All in all, many songs here choose the Safest Route. I don't think any Jethro Tull fan considers "Kissing Willie" or "Heavy Water" prime examples of Ian Anderson's creativity. Too often we're treated with subpar daddy rock (AOR?) and headscratching amount of filler. Vocals are also on a downward spiral, but at that point - 1989 - there was enough left in the tank to give an exciting performance from time to time.

On the other hand, "Rock Island" boasts at least four good songs, which is already better than "Under Wraps". What's more, even the weakest parts aren't as embarrassing as those found on "Catfish Rising", its successor. Thus I find "Rock Island" a full tier above Jethro Tull's dullest records. I even toyed with the idea of giving it three stars, but to pull this off, the album's center piece ("The Whaler's Dues") would have to live up to its hype.

I know I'll try again in a year and maybe, just maybe, I'll squeeze out more from this record. For now I'm giving it two stars (2.5 stars, really).

thief | 2/5 |

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