By Adrian Stone-Mason
I freely admit to being not entirely qualified
to write this record review of TAAB2, the recent work by Jethro Tull's
Ian Anderson. My father Julian reviewed the original Thick As
A Brick album back in 1972 for the St Cleve Chronicle. He, at
least, had some literary credentials and artistic leanings though
his work with the Linwell Players and even on the national stage with
a number of independent operatic groups.
I, however, am mere architect by trade, concerned with joining straight
and curved lines together in orderly and satisfying fashion. But then,
that's what Anderson sets out to do in this epic work. He takes as
his theme the idea that, throughout our lives, chance interventions
steer us willy-nilly to other alternative paths. He postulates that,
perhaps, some pre-ordained destiny may bring us back to a foregone
Hmmmn. Well, now..... Conceptually a bit much in this day of X Factor
banality and genre-ridden musical repetition? But, at least, something
to get your teeth into. If, in fact, you still have any, since the
average Tull/Anderson fan is likely to be found in the “special
parking” area of the local Waitrose in Clutterbury and using
a supermarket trolley as a Zimmer Frame...
Or, is that unfair? I have heard – and this needs verification
– that many much much younger people in their teens and twenties
are heeding the unlikely siren call of Progressive Rock and are desperately
seeking the antidote to the mediocrity that is todays pop and rock
On behalf of the younger Proggies' parental generation, stalwarts
of the 1970s, Yes, Emerson Lake And Palmer, Genesis and King Crimson
pioneered the inventive but often pompous and overblown concept albums
of that age.
And Tull too fitted into that after a fashion. With the release of
the Aqualung album of 1971, Anderson staunchly maintained
that it was no concept album at all; merely a collection of songs,
two or three of which had some vague commonality. But with the surreal
and spoof successor Thick As A Brick, Anderson proved he
was no slouch in the grandiose and pomp department.
However, Jethro Tull's forays into the world of Prog proved temporary.
In 1974, they returned to the short song format although Anderson
went on to produce a couple of more themed works in recent years.
Now in his dotage, he seems to have had a resurgence of renewed interest
in the bigger musical picture of the concept album. This leap of faith
assumes some considerable degree of loyalty and patience on the part
of fans, old and new. A continuous-flow piece of music, TAAB2 is comprised
of some 17 “songs” punctuated by ID points on the CD,
which utilise reiteration, development and reprise as tools to make
much of the relatively few themes making up the whole. The sound palette
compares very favourably with the instrumental sounds on the original
TAAB1. The band play with conviction and subtlety throughout and the
whole album has a live feel which, in the delicate and empathetic
hands of mixing engineer Steven Wilson, keeps its presence felt throughout,
saving what could all-too-easily have become a studio fabrication
from becoming laboured and sterile.
Ripping Hammond Organ and Electric guitar and ensemble unison passages
open the album and give way to that familiar, small-bodied acoustic
parlour guitar so beloved of its bearded master. Exploring the premise
of what might have happened to the would-be child poet whose words
were utilised by Anderson as lyrics for the original work, we hear
in From A Pebble Thrown of the fearful start to adult life
and the puzzlement as to which direction to take. The Lydian Mode
which informs this vocal melody is then used to good effect in the
second “movement” as the basis of the Pebbles instrumental.
Lavish in complex time signatures of 7/8 and 9/8 bars and with more
folky inflections, the piano accordion of keyboardist John O'Hara
complements perfectly the light touch of flute. The band members take
four-bar solo breaks to introduce themselves to the listener. Scott
Hammond plays solid, subtle and detailed drums, David Goodier, the
Fender Jazz Bass and Bavarian Wunderkind Florian Opahle takes on the
electric guitar duties with firm bravado and Germanic panache.
There follows the spoken word introduction of the album concept in
which Anderson ponders in poetic rendition the What-ifs, Maybes
and Might-have-beens of life, past and future?
in the notion of Gerald, The Banker, Upper Sixth Loan Shark
is the first of two pieces on the ever-controversial subject of the
greed and culture of fat-cat investment bankers. It finds its origin
in the short description of the schoolboy money-lender who discovers
“money in those Goddam hills” as he creams a hefty service
percentage from his fellow school mates' shortfall in pocket money.
Banker Bets, Banker Wins is a solid 6/4 time mid-tempo song
with pay-off title refrain and middle eight choruses. Quite the easy-on-the-ear
work-horse tune of the album, the melody and chords function later
on several occasions in different contexts.
Gender options and preferences are on parade in the two tunes which
make up the Gerald Goes Homeless chapter. Swing It Far
is the touching tale of sexual awakening and paternal disapproval
which the self-discovery of the gay Gerald provokes. Leaving home
to the welcoming embrace of like-minded peers evokes London's trendy
Camden Town and the hedonistic lifestyle. Alternating between gentle
passages and aggressive choruses of almost early Who-like ferocity
we hear of a Gerald looking for and defending his natural sexual identity.
But, descent into rent-boy loneliness and failure grips son and parents
alike in Adrift And Dumfounded, a bluesy ballad of despair.
On reading the title and lyrics, I first thought that Anderson had
misspelled “dumbfounded” until I discovered that his “dumfounded”
is, in fact, an alternative corrupted spelling of the old English
word and predates even its elderly user by some 350 years, or so.
Gerald as The Military Man finds him in more Gung Ho character
as officer material in theatre of war, lured by the adventuring values
of a supposedly public school education and soldierly ambition. Old
School Song echoes the playing fields of an Eton or Harrow but hints
at the “harsh reality, by and by” to come in the real
world beyond. Wootton Bassett Town will be familiar to all
as the location of the public repatriations of fallen servicemen and
women in the Iraqi and Afghan campaigns of recent years. This sombre,
reflective discourse on the futility of war is another use of the
principle “Banker” theme from earlier in the album. Apparently,
Anderson himself has visited Bassett on repatriation days and was
duly moved to write accordingly of his feelings.
Back to the sporting motif with the opening to Power and Spirit
as a young Gerald, absorbing the potential of chapel life as chorister,
gets religion in big and dangerous fashion. Power and corruption beckon
and take us to Give Till It Hurts, rendered in almost country
style, with mandolin and American TV evangelist voice as Gerald exhorts
his God to help seek the contributions of the TV congregation which
keep him in style and comfort.
My favourite piece is, perhaps, the warm-hearted Cosy Corner,
first of two looks at Gerald as A Most Ordinary Man, proprietor
of the corner shop, playing with his model trains while his childless
wife, Madge, remains upstairs preparing dinner. Apparently, Anderson
found himself, in the run-up to Christmas, standing in the cold, listening
to a brass band in a West Country English town and resolved to put
such an ensemble on the record. To accompany this quirky spoken piece,
O'Hara scored a simple piece for four horns and it was duly inserted
into the album at the very last minute in time for the mixing sessions.
Shunt and Shuffle appears to be a latter-day, if truncated,
nod to Anderson's earlier Aqualung track Locomotive Breath
in rhythm and intent but is all-too-soon gone after more mysterious
references to wife Madge's Fray Bentos Pie, the fast-food pie-in-the-can
of every student household.
The pivotal piece A Change Of Horses is a lengthy track which
hints of major life changes and reflection. Originally conceived as
a tune for performance on an Indian concert tour with guest sitarist
Anoushka Shankar, it was re-written and arranged for TAAB2 and the
lyrics even changed to enable its performance in many concerts over
the previous year without giving too much away. Heavy on Anderson's
characteristic flute, the Indian influences, musical structure and
mystical feel are still there but are enlivened by Opahle's guitar
and Ohara's accordion in a more Western setting. An ensemble tour
de force concludes the piece, only to be reprised later at an even
22 Mulberry Walk embraces two tunes, Confessional and Kismet
In Suburbia which bring to conclusion the fate and karma of the
various Gerald characters. The first reiterates the Swing It Far
chorus in reflective and sorrowful way as the Gerald personae confess
to personal shortcomings and life's mis-deeds. After more Lydian Mode
first instrumental theme exploration and returning to Asian notions,
Kismet develops Change of Horses musical elements into a
retro, almost hippie, pastiche of the various Gerald identities as
they inhabit, in close proximity, a middle class housing estate on
the fringe of somewhere smug and ordinary in the Home Counties. This
seems to be Anderson's metaphor for inevitable and fateful conclusion
where, in spite of various possible life divergences, the soul comes
to rest in a, more or less, pre-ordained outcome. A fast and furious
reprise of the Change Of Horses instrumental passage steers us to
the reiteration of the What-ifs, Maybes and Might-have-beens material,
this time with the familiar opening tune as lyric melody and the Banker
Bets tune pressed into service once more as a heavy verse and chorus
as our tame and “ordinary man” imagines a bold, if unlikely,
future adventurous relationship. And to cap it all, what better than
to conclude with the last few bars of the original TAAB to wrap everything
in a neat parcel with red ribbon?
Therein lies the potential weakness of this fine effort. The attempt
to conceive and justify the musical architecture of TAAB2 does, perhaps,
overwhelm the content from time to time. In service of the conceptual
nature, the result often fails to satisfy the basic needs of the rock
aficionado. Or should that be base needs? Perhaps rock genre music
should be just that: the straight-ahead, four-to-the-bar, heavy back-beat
blue comfort blanket of a generation. Or three. Anderson's natural
enthusiasm for his subject(s) all too often gets the better of him:
the result is that there is sometimes a stop-and-go feeling to the
album with changes of musical tack and new developments occurring
just when the listener is getting to know a section and settle back
with a fresh tune. Then, all change! Some new idea bursts out of the
closet and away we go again with another theme or new lyrical character.
Still, better that than fifty-four long minutes of mere repetition
and a paucity of invention.
Maybe, just once in a while – once in a long while – there
is room for unfettered joy in the questioning intellect at work and
play in the realms of the popular rock music form. So, in spite of
reservations and full in the knowledge that this will appeal to a
limited public, I give TAAB2 and its creator Ian Anderson three marks
out of five. It would have been two and a half but the poor old bugger
lives just down the road and I would never hear the end of it.
In writing this review, I have repeatedly listened and re-listened
to the various passages of TAAB2 and find myself about to press the
play-again button. Right from the top. Something works here, even
if I'm not entirely sure what it is. What-ifs, Maybes and Might-have-been:
Why Nots, Perhaps, And Wait And Sees.... Even mangling the language
can be fun.
© Adrian Stone-Mason, 2012.
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