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THE TARTAN (Carnegie Mellon)
16 September 1991
JETHRO TULL'S LATEST MIMICS THEIR OLD STYLE
Jethro Tull might as well have only recorded one album, and named every track 'Another Song'. While nobody mistakes Tull's elegant hard rock for anything else on the market, distinguishing some of Tull's songs on a single album — or, for that matter, albums from one another — is a chore beyond most music-lovers.
Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Tull's songs are well-crafted testimonies to Ian Anderson's songwriting ability. The Tull formula is tried and true: strong melodies; heavy guitar mixed with folksong overtones; sagacious, elfin vocals; and musing, darkly wry lyrics. Mix these together. Go to a recording studio. Sing songs. Repeat until hell freezes over.
When considering whether or not you should buy their newest album, Catfish Rising, you're likely to end up sounding like your mother criticizing your childhood hoard of toys. "You've already got a Jethro Tull album. Do you really need another?" The answer really boils down to whether or not you want more of the same. It's consistently good listening, but the key concept here is "consistent." You're liable to listen to all 13 tracks and wonder what's with those odd pauses in that unusually long song.
Some songs are rhythmic and bass-oriented, while some are wild excursions into the land of frenzied guitar. One song even has some backwards-processed instrument amidst the huzzah. It doesn't matter. Tull could switch to kazoos and bagpipes and you still wouldn't be able to tell one song from the next.
So, what does Catfish Rising offer, given that you probably already have it? Ian Anderson's voice retains its ominous, mocking tonality, but most of the lyrics have an edge of flippancy. Tull tries to bring florid poetry to the comprehension level of the common man. It's as if you're chatting over tea with the Oracle of Delphi, with good-natured "If you know what I mean's" casually tossed between each portentous revelation.
The album (like ... sigh ... all of them) presents an intriguing mixture of contemporary rock 'n' roll passion and a quaint, almost ethnic modality. Percussion is light and nimble, sometimes omitted altogether with no loss of musical structure.
And, of course, there's "The Flute". Anderson would be all but musically emasculated without his breathy soprano companion, and while its lilting tones are somewhat down-played, they're still the heart of many a measure.
There are jangling acoustic pieces and howling modem up-beat numbers. But most of the songs are the leisurely-paced, wandering pieces which typify Tull. You won't walk away humming the melodies, because you won't remember them — but each song is enjoyable at some basic level.
Even still, a select few tracks make you perk your ears briefly. 'Thinking Round Corners' is an off-balance country ditty with whining, almost deranged vocals. 'Doctor To My Disease', despite its uninviting title, has a pleasing, energetic harmony. 'White Innocence' is both delicate and powerful, being one of the few tributes to guiltless romance that doesn't sound like a tampon commercial.
'When Jesus Came To Play', though not overly compelling musically, does paint an interesting allegory, wherein Christ is portrayed as a hackneyed, second-rate band leader. ("He sang about three of four numbers but we'd heard it all before / We boys were getting restless: no girls were moving on the floor.") It makes you wonder if there are similar metaphorical motivations behind the other songs, but not enough to make you really want to check.
Catfish Rising is more Tull. It's good Tull, entertaining Tull, but largely non-memorable Tull. It won't make you set sail for glorious destinies with visions of a Utopian universe surging through your soul, but it will give you something unobtrusively enjoyable to play in the background while you do your homework. Consult your Tull tolerance and your wallet; if neither are exhausted, then you've got something to grab next time you're at the record store.