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Two years on from Crest Of A Knave, Jethro Tull's latest watery rave ...
CHRYSALIS CHR 1708 LP/Cass/CD
Who'd have thought it? In 1987 Jethro Tull were languishing — three years since Under Wraps (an indifferent selling, synth-dominated album that none of them remember with much pleasure), neglected by the Chrysalis label their success helped to found, and with the boss recuperating after serious throat problems. Then came Crest Of A Knave, which turned into their biggest selling album for years and won the 1989 Grammy as hard rock/heavy metal album of the year. From there it was a short skip into the 20-year celebratory tour and accompanying 65-track compilation. Suddenly it seemed that the saga of the old man and his crew might not yet be over.
Rock Island continues in much the same musical vein as Crest Of A Knave — 10 songs performed with the skill you'd expect from this bunch of senior statesmen. There's less acoustic guitar than before, and less solo grandstanding, so the feel is much more of an ensemble performance, though Martin Barre's electric guitar and lan Anderson's hustle-bustle flute are well to the fore. More significantly, Anderson's voice seems to have lost some of the uncertainty and dodgy Knopfleresque intonation he adopted on the last album. Meanwhile, honest Dave Pegg plucks both bass and mandolin beautifully, underrated Doane Perry thumps the tubs, and the imposing Martin Allcock doubles on guitars and keyboards.
Favourite Tull themes emerge blinking into the sunlight again — the vigour of the country versus the decay of the city (Ears Of Tin), our limitless facility for fucking up (Heavy Water and The Whaler's Dues), sex (Undressed To Kill) and, of course, Christmas. (The CD and LP contain an extra track, Hardliner.)
Two of the out-and-out rockers deserve a mention here. Kissing Willie is a wonderfully sleazy tale of oral sex in market towns ("Willie stands and Willie falls / Willie hangs his head behind grey factory walls," whoops Anderson cheerfully) and Rattlesnake Trail fair scalds along thanks to Barre's needle-sharp riffing. The Whaler's Due is probably the strongest song here. Over a repetitive guitar and flute hook, Anderson takes the part of said salty old dog bemoaning the demise of the whale — not because of any late conversion to conservation, but because in the end there was nothing left for him to kill.
Other stand-outs are the title track (hats off to Peter Vettese guesting on keyboards) and Strange Avenues, and it's here if you like, that the wheel comes full circle. Stepping into his warm limo, our hero observes: "The wino sleeps / Cold coat lined with the money section / Looking like a record cover / From 1971." Indeed. Tull tour the UK again from September 18, and the crowds are going to eat this up.