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30 December, 2003

Review: Jethro Tull/Ian Anderson 2003

Some would say I didn't give Ian Anderson's 'Rupi's Dance' and Jethro Tull's 'The christmas Album' (both 2003) a fair chance, but sometimes I know I won't like something from the very first time I hear it.  I also have a lot of experience of other Anderson/Tull albums, so have a head start on judging something new.

I bought 1999's 'J-Tull Dot Com' (DotCom) just because it was Tull, and therefore I was bound to like it. I didn't, and if anything my appreciation has decreased with time. Still, I bought Ian Anderson's 2000 solo album, 'The Secret Language Of Birds' (SLoB) on the same basis, and didn't much like that either. I've since ascribed my dislike to two factors:

  • In 1995, IA learned to play the flute 'properly'. Previously, he'd used a non-standard technique to force notes out of the instrument, giving a unique, rough, rock sound which I liked immensely. Subsequently, his style has become more conventional, tamer and 'pretty', which is a huge turn-off for me. I like Tull the hard-rock band, and albums since 1995 have been gentler AOR, even MOR. A 'pretty' flute sound is too close to cocktail jazz, even muzak.
  • The single factor that drew me to Tull, far beyond the music, was Ian Anderson's lyrics; in many cases I've received at least as much enjoyment from just reading the lyrics in silence as from hearing the songs performed. Again, the post-1995 albums have been extremely lacking in that sense. 'SLoB' was particularly bad, speaking of a 'lumpy' sea and crows 'bopping' - quite simply poor phrasing. Worse, the lyrics have become sentimental. I'd always valued IA's stance as impartial narrator, presenting situations without any judgement, leaving that to the audience. Now he writes of his own experiences and his own opinions. Fine if one shares his world-view, but I don't. The main problem is that IA is a man in his mid-fifties, with the concerns and priorities of anyone at that age, so I feel Tull/Anderson albums have become by and for fiftysomethings; those of a similar age would get most from them, but I'm 32....

My disappointment with the 1999 & 2000 albums meant I'd decided not to buy any more without hearing samples first, and reading the views of fans whose opinions I respect. There were plenty of unfavourable reviews of 'Rupi's Dance', surprisingly even from 'loyal' long-term fans, but even the favourable reviews spoke in terms of the aspects I'd most disliked in earlier releases. The commonest summary was that 'Rupi's Dance' was very similar to 'SLoB', if not so strong on lyrics (and remember, I'd thought those lyrics were weak). Others spoke of a gentle overall tone, and introspection, which are okay in themselves, but simply not what I want from Tull/Anderson i.e. impartial social observation in a driving, high-energy rock setting.
I didn't solely rely on the opinions of others, of course. The official Tull website offered an audio sample of each track. I listened to each a couple of times, and knew immediately that I wouldn't be buying this album. Some music grows on me with time, but there has to be something there from the start, to lead me on. I found the samples, backed by fan reviews and my views of the earlier albums, more than enough on which to base a purchasing decision.

Having made that evaluation, the decision to avoid the Tull christmas Album was even easier. I'm intrinsically hostile to the very idea of christmas albums anyway - when Tull release an album for Eid, Diwali or the Chinese New Year, perhaps I'll reconsider - and fan reviews were again drastically less favourable than I'd expected from 'hardcore' fans, who tend to be more forgiving than objectively critical. Several commented that the reworkings of 'classic' Tull songs were inferior to the originals (I'd questioned the point of reworking them at all), others criticised the laid-back, jazz arrangements of 'Greensleeved' and yet another version of 'Bourée'. Not that it mattered to me, another frequent comment was the tenuous relevance of some songs to the christmas theme.
I didn't need to know much more; in a year of wonderful music from other bands, I quite simply couldn't be bothered to invest time and money on something I'm unlikely to enjoy.

Oh, and the covers of both albums were spectacularly disappointing: extremely unimaginative, clichéd designs, executed using the default settings of an entry-level graphics package. Could I do better? In all sincerity: yes, without question.

Aside from the new studio albums, Tull released more remasters of the back catalogue. I'm unconvinced of the merit of remastering perfectly adequate releases at all, and will only be buying a few of the remasters to replace those I only ever owned on audio tape, plus the one justified remaster, 'Broadsword And The Beast' which was poorly mastered for the original CD release. I certainly won't be buying any remasters for the bonus tracks as, without exception, all the 'bonus' tracks have been previously released on other albums or box sets; existing fans will already have them all anyway.
That said, I did obtain two remasters this year: 'A Passion Play', a gift given to me for obvious reasons, and 'Songs From The Wood', which was in a bargain bin for 2.99.
It wouldn't be a vast overstatement to say the 'Heavy Horses' remaster scandalised some fans. Firstly, there was an error on one track, with a sudden jump in volume; I think that has been corrected for later pressings. Worse, one song was changed. The original 'Moths' has a string accompaniment, but it's missing from the remaster. The official explanation is that the strings track is missing from the master tapes, but assuming that's true, I'd regard it as a reason to re-release the original album version, perhaps with digital tweaking of the mix-down tapes (which should include the strings). For many, that'd be far better than changing the song.
One to avoid.

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