Usually, the name Jethro Tull leaves me cold when flicking through albums to buy or play. Perhaps it was unhealthy to spend so much time working with a Tull fanatic several years ago, and having heard 'Thick as a Brick' more times than I care to remember, they filled me more with a sense of dread than joy. I gave Aqualung a go, but found it to be overly long an meandering.
But dismissing a band with such an extensive catalogue on the basis of just a couple of albums isn't a wise move. A different Tull fanatic lent me this album, enthusing that it was their best one as it wasn't full of overly-long compositions full of prog-oriented noodlings and that it was 'a record just full of good songs'. He was not wrong.
'Songs from the Wood' is the first in what is considered to be Jethro Tull's 'folk' trilogy, finished off with 'Heavy Horses' and 'Stormwatch'. Toning down their heavier rock sounds of the early 70s and incorporated a more folk-like sound, building around frontman Ian Anderson's flute playing. Acoustic guitars, violins, celestes are all here, but the amped up bits do creep in to give it a bit of texture too. It's a formula that suits Jethro Tull right down to the 'T' in their agriculturally inspired name.
The opening title track starts with complex a-capella harmonies, before sliding into a jaunty folk ditty. It sets the atmosphere nicely, and Anderson leads the way with his inimitable rock/jazz flute playing, charming the bass lines as a fakir with a python. The music is incredibly complex, with multiple time changes and unexpected runs, before stepping back into its folksy groove.
'Jack-in-the-Green' follows on in much the same fashion, with acoustics and flute spiking all over its choppy rhythms. As expected, the lyrics reflect the titles and the album sleeve, but thankfully it's not as twee as it could have been. More than anything, it's quite hopeful in its lyricism - first doubting the likelihood of our countryside being left unspoiled, but then shifting to a quiet optimism '...will these changing times of motorways, powerlines keep us apart?/Well, I don't think so -- I saw some grass growing through the pavements today.'
Much better than oo-arr get yon barley in lyrics than I was expecting.
'Hunting Girl' is rather naughty. It's a story of a cheeky low-born farm worker taking a shine to a whip-wielding lady on horseback and shifts into a bit of kinky fantasy that I'm perhaps not wanting to know too much about, Mr Anderson. Musically, it skips and grooves, and finishes with some Gregorian chanting. Penance for the rising sap, perhaps?
'Ring Out the Solstice Bells' is probably the only Christmas-esque rock song I've heard that I haven't wanted to switch off, mainly because it doesn't directly reference it, and has more of a Samhain feel to it but still remains festive. 'Velvet Green' has some medieval rhythms and harpsicords that work well together, with some odd percussion and a few other unidentifiable instruments thrown in. I think the band must have ransacked the weirdest music shop in world, then written a song round the oddities they found.
'The Whistler' is just a bit too folksy-jaunty hornpipe for my tastes, and is a bit annoying. It's still showcasing the band's skills, but I find myself reaching for 'skip' here. It's the most twee track here, but thankfully it's on its own.
'Fires at Midnight' is the logical song to end things on. This is a record that does feel like Anderson has invited us into his rustic world of farms and hedgerows, pagan traditions - into his home almost, and things wind down with this song and our stay is over. Looking at the album sleeve as I listen to it, it's not hard to imagine Anderson and co. living like this and conjuring up songs to ; it all feels incredibly genuine, and is like stepping into a different world of the Green Man and other half-forgotten English folkore. It also instils me with a desire to drink Old Rosie in a barn until I pass out.
The reissue CD includes the non-album track 'Beltane', which thumps and growls along much more menacingly than the rest of the album's content. However, if you're in the mood to hear more, this is a good way to run into their next album, Heavy Horses,which continues the folk theme but with a heavier twist.
This album revived my interest in Jethro Tull, and is a good place to start. Much more accessible than their prog-heavy work, the songs are short, punchy and interestingly written. Folk is a word that can have many people fleeing for the exits, but it has atmosphere, and isn't without wit and poignancy in places.
You can pick this up for next to nothing on Amazon. If you like folk or rock, and want to hear something different then this may be to your liking.
1. Songs From The Wood (2003 Digital Remaster) 2. Jack In The Green (2003 Digital Remaster) 3. Cup Of Wonder (2003 Digital Remaster) 4. Hunting Girl (2003 Digital Remaster) 5. Ring Out Solstice Bells (2003 - Remaster) 6. Velvet Green (2003 Digital Remaster) 7. The Whistler (2003 Digital Remaster) 8. Pibroch (Cap In Hand) (2003 Digital Remaster) 9. Fire At Midnight (2003 Digital Remaster) 10. Beltane (2003 Digital Remaster) 11. Velvet Green (Live)