Thick As A Brick 2/ Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson
Genre: Progressive folk-rock
Chrysalis Records-EMI Music/ Rs 395
Rating: **** 1/2
REALLY don’t mind if you sit this one out. My words but a whisper, your deafness a shout. I may make you feel but I can’t make you think, how nervous I was dreading Ian Anderson’s ‘Thick As A Brick 2’ would stink.
And why not? The original, released by Anderson’s band Jethro Tull in 1972, has been among by all-time favourite recordings across genres. As a progressive-rock creation, as a compositional masterpiece, as a single-song release, as the mother-turned-grandmother of all concept albums, it has earned a unique place in rock music history.
Moreover, as someone who’s literally grown up on Tull, I’m pretty obviously biased towards the band’s 1970s albums. Much as Anderson tried thereafter, and much as the Grammys suddenly realised in 1988 that such a band existed, nothing can beat the brilliance and timelessness of a ‘Thick As A Brick’, ‘Aqualung’, ‘Heavy Horses’, ‘Benefit’ or ‘Songs From The Wood’. Ah, spin me down the years, and the days of my youth.
And what’s with the great idea of producing sequels anyway? Modern-day hip-hop is full of them. And among the follow-ups to classic albums, Meatloaf did ‘Bat Out of Hell II’ and Mike Oldfield came up with parts II and III of his path-breaking ‘Tubular Bells’. They all paled in comparison. The only such project that was worth the trouble was perhaps Neil Young’s ‘Harvest Moon’, a follow-up to his extra-popular ‘Harvest’. But otherwise, sequels seem to go better with movies than with music.
And, talking of this latest effort, why is Tull’s long-standing and outstanding guitarist Martin Barre missing from the line-up? Is Anderson just cashing in on the popularity and brand-name of ‘Thick As A Brick’ by coming out with a half-hearted Part Two? Has he ‘fallen on hard times’? Or is it a result of the ‘dark ages’ we live in musically?
I shuddered to imagine what TAAB2, as it’s being called, would sound like. My God! I’d rather have spent time sitting on a park bench, or moving in the shuffling madness of the locomotive breath, or bringing you songs from the wood to make you feel much better than you could know, or just feeding some heavy horses in acres wild.
WONDRIN’ aloud, how we feel today, I can only say that all my doubts were cleared after the first two hearings of TAAB2. My first reaction was that it definitely doesn’t make you shake your head, and say it’s a shame. After a few listens, I concluded that this is an absolute beauty, a ‘sweet dream’ come true. The CD plays on my system day in and night out, and like all my favourite Tull albums, I discover something new each time I hear it.
Guess there’s ‘a time for everything’. Well, ‘nothing is easy’, and matching the reputation of a classic is certainly tough. But yes, TAAB2 is the closest one can get to vintage Tull, blending progressive rock with ‘root-to-branches’ Scottish and Celtic folk, and a few doses of jazz and classically-inspired melodies. It has that trademark 70s sound and, yet, bubbles with a contemporary flavour.
‘Life is a long song’, and Anderson seems to have come full circle with this one. This is the Jethro Tull ‘we used to know’.
How similar is it to the original? For starters, a few common licks are taken directly from ‘Thick As A Brick’, but that’s done only in passing, to retain the theme and make the connection. There are references to earlier songs like ‘A Passion Play’ and ‘Locomotive Breath’, but that again, is more in fun or self-parody. And while the 1972 album was credited to this fictitious character called Gerald Bostock, the new set talks of what all Gerald could have done in these 40 years. Even the cover concept is based on the same principle, though the newspaper St Cleve Chronicle has now been replaced by the ‘velvet green’ masthead of the web newsletter www.StCleve.com. After all, how long should one be ‘living in the past’?
The similarities end there. As a musical creation, TAAB2 is mostly new, fresh and intoxicating. While ‘Thick As A Brick’ was one single 44-minute song, this one has 17 numbers, most of them under four minutes. A total of 53 minutes of ‘passion play’. And while there’s a good mix of the acoustic and electric with a routine instrumental thrown in (‘Pebbles Instrumental’), what’s new is the way Anderson uses spoken monologues at regular intervals.
The album is divided into two unequal parts — called Divergence (which talks of what would happen to Gerald if he had become a banker, a homeless person, a military man, a chorister, or just an ordinary man) and Convergence (which describes his ‘destiny, fate, karma, kismet’). And while the songs flow from one to another, personal favourites include the uptempo, guitar-driven ‘Banker Bets, Banker Wins’, the acoustic gem ‘Adrift and Dumbfounded’, the very typical Tull piece ‘Old School Song’, the orchestrally innovative ‘Wootton Bassett Town’, the folksy ‘Give Till It Hurts’, the punchy ‘Shunt and Shuffle’ (reminiscent of ‘Locomotive Breath’) and the eight-minute charmer ‘A Change In Horses’, which uses influences of Arabic, Oriental and Indian music too.
Among the minstrels in the TAAB2 gallery, John O’Hara (Hammond organ, piano and keyboards), David Goodier (bass, the unique-sounding glockenspiel), Peter Judge (trumpet, flugelhorn) and Ryan O’Donnell (additional vocals) chip in well. But the real stars are drummer Scott Hammond, who sounds very much like Tull’s Barriemore Barlow, and guitarist Florian Opahle, who comes as a perfect replacement for Martin. Florian has taken instructions from the great jazz guitarist Al Di Meola, and the class shows here.
As for Anderson, one may argue that his voice has changed a bit, but the truth is that he’s adapted well, without experimenting too much with his range, and largely staying away from his archetypal syllable-stretching mannerisms. As a conceptualiser, composer and flautist, he’s an ever-brimming ‘cup of wonder’ who still has the charm of the Pied Piper. He’ll be turning 65 this August, but TAAB2 proves that he’s never too old to rock ‘n’ roll. Bouree!
RATING SCALE: * Poor; ** Average; *** Good; **** Excellent; ***** Classic