Thursday, January 30, 2003

And now for a line or two about...
Jethro Tull's Minstrel In The Gallery!

Minstrel is otherwise known in many circles as The Last Good Tull Album. It was certainly the last gasp of the classic Tull sound, an odd mix of blues, jazz, rock, and Edward Lear with flutes. If you're totally unfamiliar with Jethro Tull (the band, not the inventor of the seed drill) then you should probably go here, then here. Theirs is a long and twisty story, and life is short. Probably the most relevant thing to know going in to MITG is that it was the follow-up to their successful WarChild album, which featured their biggest hit "Bungle In The Jungle", and was only the latest in a four year streak of best selling LPs and sold out concert tours. At the time of MITG's 1975 release, Tull was one of the biggest bands in the world. Hard to believe now, but it's true.

Of course, such a profile does not come without a down side. By '75, Tull received a lot of flak from music critics, who have always been snide and cynical when confronted with music and musicians who make them feel less clever than they feel themselves to be, and the perception was that Ian Anderson & co.'s increasingly opaque and metaphor-laden lyrics and complicated, involved arrangements were just too much to bear– and they were out for blood. Tull must be taken down a notch! How dare they be so clever! They seemed to say. After their back-to-back album length song suite efforts Thick as a Brick and A Passion Play the critical vitriol was so bad the Anderson declared that Tull was retiring in 1974 because he was tired of the constant sniping. Of course, he disavowed that statement many years later but he said it nonetheless. A sort of concilatory gesture was made when WarChild was released as a set of seperate songs, but it didn't help much. Next, after a best-of collection to recharge the batteries, was Minstrel, and Anderson was determined to have his turn.

Thematically, that's what MITG is. A defiant, cynical, hostile Anderson firing back at his critics and defending himself against his perceived persecution. The opening title track finds him roleplaying a bit in a spoken intro in which he is introduced to an audience which greets him with half hearted applause. He states his theme, which is this is what I feel, think, and do; and if you like it fine, if not, fuck off. Musically, it's a bit schizo. It begins with Anderson singing the main lyric accompanied only by his ubitiquous flute and acoustic guitar. When this ends, then lead guitarist Martin Barre jumps in with a nasty lick and the track lurches to life and continues with a propulsive cowbell. A fine opener, if a bit overlong at damn near eight minutes, and I think it was an FM radio hit here in the states.

Next is Cold Wind To Valhalla, with Ian singing a come-on to some lass, using Norse mythological imagery. It's breezy and fast paced, and has a nice middle section with a slightly out of tune guitar solo playing against singing strings. Black Satin Dancer is next, another lyrical love song, but it comes across as a bit of a Frankenstein construction with multiple passages stitched together to form a somewhat less than beguiling whole. Still, there's another nice middle section which features a glockenspiel playing a music-box tune as heavy guitars and ponderous strings sneak up behind. Track four, Requiem, is probably the least successful offering. It's just Ian and guitar, playing a tuneless melody and singing slice-of-life lyrics, quite straightforward but also unfortunately quite dull.

However, the next series of songs is much, much's a suite of sorts, featuring a number of seperate tunes again, in the spirit of his Passion Play and Thick As A Brick albums but, unlike the earlier Black Satin Dancer, the stitching is much more seamless. Starting with One White Duck/0 tenth power=Nothing At All(sort of an acoustic intro although not really part of the upcoming suite) then segueing into short pieces with great titles likeBaker Street Muse, Pig-Me and the Whore, Crash Barrier Waltzer, and Mother England Reverie before reprising Baker St. Muse at the end, this is pretty much where Anderson stands his ground and flips off his detractors. The lyrics on tracks 5-7 are quite convoluted and metaphor-heavy, and I'm sure they mean much more to him than they do to the casual listener, but his intent is quite clear from lines like "Something must be wrong with me and my brain/ If I'm so patently unrewarding/ But my dreams are for dreaming and best left that way/ And my zero to your power of ten equals/ Nothing at all". Musically, tracks 5-7 run the gamut and almost form a retrospective of Tull music to that point. The Baker St. Muse reprise builds up a nice head of steam until it comes crashing to an end in a wash of strings and guitar, and ends with Anderson, all alone, humming "I'm just a Baker St. Muse" to himself as he puts away his instrument and walks to the studio door, whereupon he realizes that it's locked and exclaims to himself "I can't get out!"...a clever ending and one which shows that Anderson had not completely lost his sense of humor. A brief acoustic tune, Grace, so inconsequential as to almost not be there, finishes the album on a quiet, and odd, note.

So while some of the musical arrangements plod when they should drive, and more often as not I have no idea what the heck Anderson is going on about, I think this period of Tull and this album (and the excellent A Passion Play, which is a whole 'nother blog page) in particular represents some outstanding musicmaking of the type that rarely comes along these days, and may have been perhaps the last gasp of Anderson's real creativity-but hindsight is 20/20. Sometimes Anderson could be heavy-handed and oblique, but when he was on (1970-75) he had a unique and distinctive songwriting voice, and in my book that shouldn't be ignored. After this, the pickings got slimmer...Tull released the dull and conventional concept album "Too Old To Rock 'n Roll, Too Young To Die" in 1976 which was a huge disappointment aesthetically if not sales-wise, tried to retreat into folk again the next year with "Songs From The Wood", a super-slick and overproduced folkish record, and endured several personnel changes in subsequent years, sliding into irrelevance in direct proportion to the production gloss of each subsequent release. Jethro Tull is these days a forgotten musical entity, usually made fun of and lumped in with the Totos and Bostons when they're remembered at all, except by those who are die hard fans and those, like me, who fondly remember when...