KamerTunesBlog

Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time

Forty Year Friday – JETHRO TULL “SONGS FROM THE WOOD”

Artist: JETHRO TULL
Album: SONGS FROM THE WOOD

[Welcome to Forty Year Friday, the weekly series on my favorite albums of 1977]

A decade into their career, Jethro Tull had morphed from a heavy-blues band into one of the world’s premier purveyors of progressive rock via Gold & Platinum albums like Aqualung, Thick As A Brick and A Passion Play, the latter two topping the U.S. charts. With singer/songwriter/flautist Ian Anderson’s iconic one-legged stance and their distinctive flute-injected sound (I once jokingly referred to them as “one of the Top 5 flute-based rock bands of the mid-‘70s”), they didn’t fit into any pre-defined musical classification. They tackled blues, hard rock, jazz, classical & anything else that inspired them and, although they didn’t necessarily enjoy being lumped in with the prog-rock scene, they defined that genre as much as their contemporaries like Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer, Pink Floyd and Gentle Giant. Following 1976’s theatrical concept album, Too Old To Rock ‘N’ Roll: Too Young To Die, Anderson got married, moved to the country and went “back to nature,” inspiring one of the most joyous & enjoyable records of their career, Songs From The Wood. The rustic nature of their new sound is perfectly captured in that album cover photo. Assisted by longtime cohorts Martin Barre (guitar), John Evan (piano, organ, synthesizer), Barriemore Barlow (drums, percussion) & David Palmer (who previously contributed orchestral arrangements but adds additional keyboards here), along with bassist John Glascock making his second appearance on a Tull record, Anderson delivered what is arguably his strongest & most accessible collection of songs on the band’s 10th studio album.

There are highlights aplenty among the ten tracks, with only one that’s never made an impact on me (yet I still like it). Album opener “Songs From The Wood,” with its 40-second a capella intro followed by acoustic instrumentation, eventually gives way to a classic Tull arrangement of off-kilter rhythms, flute, harpsichord & lead guitar accents. As the lyrics suggest, these songs “make you feel much better than you could know.” I’ve long considered “The Whistler” one of their best songs, and the pinnacle of this album. I love the sweet melody in the verses and the tight, rhythmic, super catchy chorus (“I’ve got my fife and I’ve come to play”). Anderson handles all instruments on the folky “Jack-In-The Green,” which features a lilting flute melody. “Hunting Girl” is notable for its haunting keyboard sound, stop-start rhythm & Barre’s muscular riffing; a motif that recurs throughout the song. Tull’s first foray into Christmas music is the perky “Ring Out Solstice Bells.” Somehow they managed to keep this seasonal song from feeling out of place here. It also takes a talented group of musicians to make a tune in 7/4 (“Seven druids dance in seven time”) sound accessible to non-musicians, but they achieve that thanks to Anderson’s straightforward vocal delivery, those handclap-accented verses & softer choruses. “Cup Of Wonder” is a propulsive rocker with a memorable flute line that alternates between sparse acoustic sections & a full band attack. The instrumental section includes a great guitar-and-flute solo. The two longest tracks are also, unsurprisingly, the most complex: In 6 minutes, “Velvet Green” moves from synth harpsichord to an offbeat rhythm with flute, guitar, bass, bells & more, then gets briefly syncopated before a strummed acoustic section with a cool 8-note lead guitar melody leads into a bit of percussive Medieval music; Over the course of 8-1/2 minutes, “Pibroch (Cap In Hand)” functions as a showcase for Barre’s furious electric guitar work in the first minute & the outro, sandwiching some lighter jazz, rockier elements, a quiet dual-synth section and an instrumental break with splashes, crashes & accents. I recently learned that “Pibroch” is a form of Scottish bagpipe music with elaborate variations of a theme, which makes for an appropriate title. Somehow they managed to squeeze a prog-rock instrumental into the middle of the album’s shortest song, “Fire At Midnight,” a soft, sweet little tune with subtle military-style snare drum. Jethro Tull has always had a distinct sound that set them apart from other bands, and they’ve continually challenged their fans with various musical twists & turns, so diving into their discography can be a daunting task for new listeners. For any rock fans whose tastes lean toward folky material, Songs From The Wood is the ideal entry point into the world of Tull. It’s remarkably timeless even four decades after it was created.

 

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35 comments on “Forty Year Friday – JETHRO TULL “SONGS FROM THE WOOD”

  1. stephen1001
    March 31, 2017

    I love 7/4 time signature songs – like you said, not an easy task to make it accessible though!
    I gather Jethro Tull has been a remarkably consistent band, their sound changes, but there doesn’t seem to be any drop off in terms of quality

    Like

    • 7/4 time is very common in the world of prog-rock so it sounds straightforward to me, but few such songs are as accessible as “Ring Out Solstice Bells.” Not sure how much Tull you’ve listened to, Geoff, but you are correct about their consistency & quality control.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Murphy's Law
        April 3, 2017

        Probably has a lot to do with having one solid hand at the controls – it’s pretty obvious Ian Anderson runs the show.

        Like

      • Good point. There’s only one head chef in the Tull kitchen, and Mr. Anderson always knows what’s cooking.

        Like

  2. kevin
    March 31, 2017

    Most of my favorite Tull songs tend to lean towards their folky/acoustic side – “For Michael Collins, Jeffrey and Me,” “Mother Goose,” “Skating Away” and most of this album. Good timing with this post as I’ve been listening to a lot of them lately.

    Like

    • I’m glad we have some Tull serendipity going on, Kevin. I love a lot of Tull songs & albums, but I also rate their folkier stuff among my favorites. Those songs you mentioned are all spectacular. Makes me want to dive further into Tull right now, but I have too many other things cued up.

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      • kevin
        April 2, 2017

        “Living In The Past” is another good example of how well they can mask an odd-meter. It took years for me to hear it as 5/4 (5/8?). The melody has such a natural flow to it, I never thought to count it. Great band.

        Like

      • I hadn’t thought about the time signature in “Living In The Past” until you mentioned it, but I think 5/8 is right (although depending on when you mark the breaks of each bar it might be 10/8). I never found it to be an odd meter since I can easily follow it but I guess that confirms your point about them making such time signatures accessible.

        Like

  3. Neil
    April 1, 2017

    This was the beginning a great trilogy of albums with Heavy Horses and Stormwatch as good if not better. My favorite Tull period. Thanks for the reminder.

    Like

  4. Alyson
    April 1, 2017

    I think you already know what I’m going to say about this one don’t you? Not one of my albums of 1977 but can appreciate them now with the benefit of hindsight.

    Another Scottish anecdote though – When I first came to live in The Highlands Ian Anderson was big in the fish farming industry and had factories packing high quality salmon for export – Strathaird Salmon. He was a big employer in the area and could be seen around town. After Jethro Tull he had moved to the Isle of Skye and started producing salmon probably as a hobby but he was very successful at it! Has moved on now I think and the firm probably been taken over by another company but he certainly didn’t look like the Ian Anderson of the ’70s with his one-legged stance and flute when attending business meetings re salmon production!

    Like

    • Hi Alyson. I figured this would be another “miss” for you. Tull has always been more of a boys’ band (but that pretty much applies to all prog bands). Did you ever see Mr. Anderson in person during his salmon days (and were those the equivalent of his salad days? 😛 ), or did you just see photos of him? I know he was very passionate about that business, and at some point he did it at the same time as Tull (and possibly solo material).

      Like

      • Alyson
        April 2, 2017

        Yes those may have been his salmon/salad days (very good) but more likely to have been his days in the band! You know what I think he was pointed out to me around town but not ever having been a big fan I didn’t think much of it and of course he looked very “normal” so blended into the background unlike in his earlier guise with JT. Looking forward to seeing what next week.

        Like

      • I don’t remember when Ian Anderson started looking more like a regular guy, but once it happened he carried that over to his live performances as well. There seems to be no pretense with him. What you see is what you get…perched on one leg, of course.

        This Friday’s choice, if I can find the time to write that post, is going to be a wild-card. It’s an artist a lot of people like but maybe don’t follow individual albums.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Alyson
        April 3, 2017

        Ok – Lots to choose from so looking forward to seeing what it is!

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Vinyl Connection
    April 1, 2017

    Marvellous review of a terrific album. What a return to form after the execrable Too Old! Must drag it out right now. Thanks!

    Like

    • Thanks, Bruce. Glad we agree on this album, although I think you’re being a bit harsh about Too Old… It’s not a classic but there’s plenty of great music in those grooves (or 1s and 0s).

      Liked by 1 person

  6. mikeladano
    April 2, 2017

    Apparently I too love 7/4 time signature song. I just didn’t know it!

    Listening to my favourite songs right now – Fires At Midnight.

    No wait – Jack in the Green.

    No wait – Hunting Girl!

    OK, I won’t argue. This could be the very best.

    Like

    • I know you’re a Rush fan and they’ve got 7/4 throughout their discography, especially in the early years, so your love of that time signature isn’t a surprise.

      Liked by 1 person

      • mikeladano
        April 3, 2017

        I’m sure 7/4 is like meat & potatoes to Neil Peart.

        Like

      • I think 7/4 is required for all prog-rock bands. I think I read a quote from Yes’ Alan White that Chris Squire once asked him how to play 4/4, since it had been so long since he played anything in that time signature? At some point the complicated became simple for him.

        Like

  7. DanicaPiche
    April 2, 2017

    There’s something to be said for a band that can make a flute something of a trademark. A bit like AC/DC and the bagpipes. 🙂

    Like

    • Excellent point, Danica. Of course I don’t know if bagpipes are a defining characteristic of AC/DC for most fans beyond one song, but it’s a great song. Tull certainly marked their territory with the flute, making them the definitive band with that instrument. Focus also featured flute, and Men At Work used it memorably on “Down Under,” but the first time you hear flute in a rock song only one band comes to mind.

      Like

  8. Phillip Helbig
    April 19, 2017

    “The rustic nature of their new sound is perfectly captured in that album cover photo.”

    Are you sure that it is a photo? Or is it a painting?

    Like

  9. Phillip Helbig
    April 19, 2017

    One of my favourite Tull albums (along with Stand UP and Thick as a Brick, though all through Broadsword and the Beast are good (except Under Wraps) and all of the later ones are mostly good, though the really great stuff ends around 1980) and one of my all-time favourite albums (apart from those three, these are Nightwish (like Boston’s first album, not just musically but also technically a masterpiece and, amazingly, just like Boston, is actually a demo which the record company released as a regular album), Songs of Leonard Cohen, Moving Pictures, The Wall and Evensong/Fantasia Lindum (which I think of as one album since I have them both on one CD (bought, not burned!)—I challenge anyone who thinks he has musical taste not to be completely blown away by all of these albums, so if you are not familiar with all of them, do yourself a favour!). Your review sums up why it is great. Recorded in 1977, the same year as A Farewell to Kings, the albums sound similar, not just the pastoral feel but also the sound of the cymbals.

    Ian Anderson bashing the cymbals at the beginning of “Songs from the Wood” in the Madison Square Garden concert (and his face shortly afterwards) is alone worth the price of the DVD!

    For me, it doesn’t get much better than 1970s Jethro Tull!

    With regard to my all-time list of good albums, this can be a bit misleading, since to qualify everything has to be good on the album, really good. However, there is only one each by Rush and Pink Floyd, and only three by Tull, and none by the Beatles. However, there are albums which are just as good, or even better, except perhaps for a song or two which I don’t like that much: many albums by Floyd, the Beatles, and Rush, as well as many by the likes of Fairport Convention and Steeleye Span. And, of course, there are stand-out songs, even if the rest of the album doesn’t blow me away: “Sultans of Swing”, “Stairway to Heaven”, “Dust in the Wind”, etc.

    While I’m at it, let me drum up some attention for Xandria, a German symphonic-metal band with (of course) a Dutch soprano. Sound familiar? Very similar to Nightwish in sound, but not nearly as well known. Not a rip-off; Xandria have been around longer than Nightwish.

    Like

    • I had a feeling this would be one of your favorites, Phillip…from Tull and overall. I’ve heard some Nightwish material and their music has never done much for me. I’ve heard of Amazing Blondel (whose name you didn’t specify but I figured it out based on the album titles) but never listened to their music. Will seek it out. Hopefully some of it is on Spotify.

      I appreciate your criteria for “good” albums. Our grading systems are likely very different because I think there are tons of great (not just good) albums in the ’70s by many artists. If an album has 8 amazing songs and a couple of clunkers, do you no longer consider it a good one?

      Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        April 20, 2017

        A matter of definition, of course. I would say that these albums have no faults at all. Whether one otherwise great but with one not-so-great song (or one annoying part of an otherwise great song) should put them in another category is a matter of definition. But something is needed to separate the really, really great from the merely great. 🙂

        No-one else really sounds like Amazing Blondel (at least on the early albums). The lyrics and music are written by the band, not traditional, but certainly sound traditional. About 1617, to be exact. 🙂 This is the music and lyrics of Shakespeare’s time and place, but written in the early 1970s. Many bands have medieval, or early renaissance, or late baroque, or classical, or romantic, or “modern” influences, but no-one else has the lutes-and-recorders later renaissance/early baroque sound, at least not purely (Gryphon had rock and other influences, Pentangle folk and jazz).

        Like

      • This will be a great topic for you to cover whenever you start a blog. I know you won’t limit yourself to music but I’m sure a lot of people would enjoy reading about the albums you consider to have no faults. As for The Amazing Blondel, the only albums on Spotify seem to be relatively recent, and since I’m on a strict budget this year (haven’t bought a single musical item in 2017, believe it or not) I’ll have to wait a while before checking out their early albums. Based on your descriptions I think I would enjoy them. As for Pentangle, I love that band. I know Jansch & Renbourn get all the accolades but it’s their rhythm section that made them extra special.

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        April 21, 2017

        “I know Jansch & Renbourn get all the accolades but it’s their rhythm section that made them extra special.”

        Like Rush, there was really no member weaker than the others. Jacqui McShee is a very fine singer (and, for a while now, girlfriend of Gerry Conway, drummer for Tull (see how I close the loop), Cat Stevens, Fairport Convention, Steeleye Span, and a host of others).

        Like

      • Yep, I really like McShee’s vocals, which are very distinctive and essential to the Pentangle sound. I didn’t realize she was married to Gerry Conway so thanks for that bit of info.

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        April 21, 2017

        “This will be a great topic for you to cover whenever you start a blog.”

        Yes, it’s coming. I’ve been battling cancer (for the third time!) recently, but hopefully it has been cured, or at least I’ll have a few years before the next treatment. I’m aiming for the middle of October to launch the blog.

        Think about it: the future will remember us, if at all, primarily through blogs and comments on blogs. 🙂

        Like

      • I’m really sorry to hear about the re-emergence of your cancer. I hope the treatment is successful, with little or no side effects. I’m glad the blog is still on its way. I agree that this community is a great way to leave our thoughts out there for future generations, if they happen to stumble upon our ramblings.

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        April 24, 2017

        Not re-emergence, but a completely different kind (first time—first two times—was lymphoma): prostate cancer. One of my first blog posts will be about this. 😐 I had a focal treatment via HIFU, which should get rid of it with no long-term side effects (which is really amazing compared to the typical side effects).

        Like

      • Phillip Helbig
        April 24, 2017

        ” I didn’t realize she was married to Gerry Conway so thanks for that bit of info.”

        I don’t know if they are actually married, but that is becoming less important these days.

        The former (until a couple of weeks ago) Federal President of Germany, Joachim Gauck, a Lutheran minister, is still married, but moved into the Presidential Palace with his girlfriend, not his wife. No big deal; even the conservative parties didn’t criticize him for this. There was some gossip when he visited Africa, though—he was probably thankful for diplomatic immunity.

        Like

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