Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
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.