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29 January 1977
Songs From The Wood
(Chrysalis CHR 1132)
Here we go again ...
Loath as I am to raise the subject, and loath as Ian Anderson is to accept it, it is a simple fact of life that a little masterpiece called Aqualung was easily the most successful and forceful work recorded by Jethro Tull.
It's been said before — and it will be again — that until Tull reach a height that is comparable to the scintillating pitch you-know-what touched, then everything they do will live in its shadow.
Songs From The Wood could have been swallowed by this ominous shadow, were it not for the fact that although it comes nowhere near striking the same high, it does manage to sow seeds on which Tull can build and, in perhaps a couple of albums' time, reach this elusive climax again.
Why the optimism? Well, although this is only a fairly good, occasionally very good and-once-brilliant album, it can be justifiably argued that Songs From The Wood is the first of a new-age Tull recording. It is definitely unlike anything they have recorded before. Perhaps Ian Anderson has decided to put his money where his often over-sized mouth is, and really attempt to vary the formula.
The three albums he has made since his "comeback", War Child, Minstrel In The Gallery and Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll, Too Young To Die, are practically all negligible contributions to the Tull repertoire, although Minstrel In The Gallery holds its head above water in the long term by providing a couple of classics in the shape of 'Black Satin Dancer', 'One White Duck' and 'Mother England Reverie', as well as being vaguely reminiscent of the Tull of the Aqualung period we all wanted to hear.
Songs From The Wood is more durable than its three predecessors, probably because Anderson and his band start fiddling adventurously with the formula, kicking it around and coming up with more experimental arrangements. As well as that, Anderson's vocal blends in much more with the arrangement than it has done. It really sounds as if it is part of the songs.
But before going any further, I'll refer to the discrepancies which make it only a fairly good album. First, there's the hideous concept, because these really are songs from the wood, and their substance never has much bite or attack. And anyway, Ian Anderson as Robin Hood, or even as the country squire on the sleeve, doesn't appeal to me. That's really bland. Really boring.
Coming as this does, then, from the wood, it's relevant that much of the instrumental music on the album is very folk-orientated, with lutes, whistles and, of course, flutes. Tull's attempts, however, at scoring a folk symphony on 'Velvet Green' or just playing the dumb folkie on 'Jack In The Green', where he sings incredibly in the style of Cat Stevens, and 'The Whistler', getting a good old-fashioned jig together, are shallow. That side of the material is just plain weak.
The optimism on Songs From The Wood stems from four tracks: 'Cup Of Wonder, 'Hunting Girl', 'Fire At Midnight' and 'Pibroch (Cap In Hand)'.
'Pibroch' is easily the album's superlative cut, a gutsy Tull rocker with a haunting build-up. It opens with a grinding riff from Barre on the guitar and Evans on synthesiser, drops to a taunting Anderson vocal and creeps back in at various times, with the impact sharpened even more by Anderson's flute line.
One of the sadder aspects of this album, in fact, is that Martin Barre is never set loose, which seems to me to be a sad waste of talent, although one of the better aspects of the tracks — and 'Pibroch' in particular — is the contribution of the band to the arrangements, especially keyboardists Evans and Palmer.
'Cup Of Wonder' and 'Hunting Girl', placed side by side on the album, are snappy, melodic Anderson compositions, and judging by the positive feel on the two, were recorded when the band were in a very enthusiastic mood.
The acoustic guitar / flute riff on 'Cup Of Wonder' is neat, and 'Hunting Girl' is beautifully punctuated throughout by Barre's jabbing phrases and Glascock's busy bass. On almost every album, Anderson comes up with a lovely mellow tune. 'Fire At Midnight' is the one on this album.
As a sticker on the sleeve will probably announce: Includes the hit single, 'Ring Out, Solstice Bells', to which I'm totally indifferent.
Songs From The Wood won't restore Tull's flagging prestige in Britain. Nor will it be seen as a real downer. Its place lies somewhere in-between those two poles — an offering from a band that displays new potential without fully realising it. File under 'reasonably popular.'
Thanks to Mike Wain for this article.