REVIEW: JETHRO TULL – “String Quartets”
For many metal fans the name Jethro Tull is synonymous with their winning the Grammy for best Hard Rock or Metal performance over Metallica in 1988. Being a big fan of the former band, and not at all of the latter I still find this event to be hilarious. All that is as it may be, what we have in the present day is a review from a metal site, not only of a Jethro Tull album, but an album of classical interpretations fittingly entitled ‘String Quartets’ and I’m very glad that we do as it’s a delightful and often inspired little record. Progressive rock, especially from the 70s, has a long history of orchestral, classical (as the broadly understood style, not the time specific period made between 1730 and 1820) versions of its music being recorded. Yes, and Pink Floyd leap immediately to mind. But Jethro Tull has always been a unique band, even in a unique genre, utilizing more folk than the classical influences favored by many other bands. And because of this their music is less symphonic in nature, and so the stripped down and less elaborate format of a string quartet fits their music far better than a full orchestra would. With the added addition of Ian Anderson’s signature flute work, and occasional vocals the whole sound is well rounded and fitting for the source material.
The songs themselves cover a wide range of years and styles from the band’s history and were orchestrated by pianist and Tull member John O’Hara, who also contributed piano to several tracks. The strings are performed by Ireland’s Carducci Quartet who do a stellar job not only performing, but interpreting the music, making it unique and clearly within their own realm, but also playing it with the dirty, almost sarcastic flavor that much of it was originally recorded in. The album was also recorded in several cathedrals and crypts rather than a studio, which adds a touch of atmosphere ambiance to the final recording. The tone is set early with “In the Past (Living in the Past)” with stirring strings and gentle finger plucks that are accentuated by Anderson’s breathy and always punchy style of flute playing. I was immediately impressed with how well it all worked together and also lulled and peacefully pulled into the album.
As would be expected from an album comprised of new versions of classic material, my favorite pieces are also some of my favorite songs originally. “Songs and Horses (Songs From the Woods/ Heavy Horses)” a medley of the two songs from albums of the same name, is especially well done, and brings a new life and vibrancy to these much loved pieces from the band’s folk era. “Velvet Gold (Velvet Green)” from the same time is also delightful, and the strings lift the spirits of the listener as well as lull them into a peaceful and contemplative state; very fitting for these homages and love letters to the English countryside. Special notice should also be taken for the holiday themed pieces, which feature Anderson at his vocal best: “Pass the Bottle (A Christmas Song)” and “Ring Out These Bells (Ring Out, Solstice Bells)” as they combine all the elements of the album together in a way that truly brings the songs to life. Which is not to say the combination works perfectly every time; a slower piece is “Aquafugue (Aqualung)” which pairs the dirty, grimy lyrics of the city and character of the song with the more delicate playing of the strings. I find the combination to be rather off putting, and it ends an otherwise very good album on a bit of a sour note.
One miss, though, on an album of this nature is certainly batting well above average. The concept, orchestration, and execution are all spot on on every front. I hope very much that this is not a one off album project. Granted, you can overdo a good idea, but the songs selected are all of the short variety, which leaves out the band’s best material. I hope a second volume made up of selections from ‘Thick as a Brick,’ ‘Minstrel in the Gallery,’ and especially ‘A Passion Play’ is in the works because the long form compositions of those songs would be perfect for this format. Time alone I suppose will tell.
With ‘String Quartets’ Jethro Tull have put out a stirring, and at times brilliant collection of some of their best known songs in an entirely new format. Fans of the band should be well pleased when they hear what Ian Anderson and company have created. They’ve produced a classical album that can, and should be enjoyed by a wide range of people with a varied taste in music; and someone looking for a new album to cook or enjoy a meal to would be hard pressed to find something better. For rock fans, it’s familiar and accessible enough to enjoy as it is, and fans of classical music who are in the mood for something lighter and different will find plenty to enjoy as well. For fans of strictly metal music; well, there’s always Metallica.