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5 February 1977
TULL'S WOODEN MUSIC
Songs From The Wood
If you play this album at 45 rpm it sounds just like Steeleye Span.
If you then change the speed control and spin it again it sounds just as much like Cat Stevens backed by Fairport Convention at the execution of Babbacome Lee. Yes, friends, Jethro Tull have revamped their old Medieval image. In fact, if you believe the press kit that accompanies Songs From The Wood, this latest album marks Jethro Tull's "return to the earth, and for that matter, their routes" (sic).
In fact, far from being a return to the roots, Songs From The Wood is in fact just one more in the line of 'concept albums' that started, somewhat hesitantly, with Aqualung. In many respects it's as good as all the others. You come to expect a certain level of competence and expertise from Tull, even when they're substandard. There's less of Martin Barre's ferocious electric guitar on this album and many more acoustic instruments than usual, but the production and the playing is well over par.
The unaccompanied voices and then the sweeping guitar on the title track are extremely attractive, while 'Ring Out Solstice Bells' is every bit as strong as the best from Tull's early years. The rest offer the customary bait of strange tempo changes, rich tones and Anderson's trademark, his double-track and slightly vibrated vocal mix.
But as a concept album in the great tradition of concept albums it has absolutely nothing to say. Admittedly Ian Anderson has always been rock's Herman Hesse, a schoolboy intellectual with a particularly florid and attractive style. Yet Aqualung did burst a blood vessel or two over urban insecurity, and Thick As A Brick upstaged the Sex Pistols by about five years. One should not refuse Anderson some of the relevance and achievement he seems to think has been denied him.
Songs From The Wood then uses as its framework that often highly nebulous music that passes for 'Period' when considering the dark ages before widespread literacy. But with a distinctly medieval taste to it. If track titles like 'Cup of Wonder', 'Jack In The Green', 'The Whistler', 'Velvet Green', 'Pibroch (Cap In Hand)' and the Christmas single 'Ring Out Solstice Bells' don't evoke the same romantic vision of a by-gone age as Jay Lee's cover paintograph, then spin the record and listen to the words and the music. Literary archetypes from pre-theatrical drama and local legend walk down the old straight track as Ian Anderson follows the keylines of Old English balladry with instruments and tunes to suit.
But unfortunately the whole affair sounds like the background music to TV's Robin Hood, the score of a movie like 'Tom Jones' or perhaps the lowlife themes from 'Barry Lyndon'. Shot in technicolor through gauze they may be, but they mean little or nothing alone.
Steeleye Span play the same game but they succeed because they have strong control over the authenticity of their material. And, at heart, Maddy P. and the boys are well aware that in its original form their music was never meant to be more than a form of community-based entertainment.
But on this album Ian Anderson sounds even more soulful and intense than usual. Sometimes he sounds as cloying as Cat Stevens. But he seems to have nothing to say to justify the emotional weight he's throwing about.
After the heavy leather bias of the last album Too Old To Rock 'n' Roll Too Young to Die it is hard to see Songs From The Wood as more than just a well-prepared exercise in style.
If Tommy Garrett and his Fifty Guitars can play Hawaiian and James Last can play the Beatles then Jethro Tull can turn to Traditional Folk.
Maybe the next one will be Latin American in flavour.
CHAS DE WHALLEY
Thanks to Mike Wain for this article.