Song of the Day, May 26: Cold Wind to Valhalla by Jethro Tull

TullColdWindToday’s song comes from Jethro Tull’s transitional album Minstrel In the Gallery. After starting as a blues band, the group evolved into a distinctive progressive rock unit. On their eighth album, they began exploring folk rock elements, an approach that would feature prominently on later releases. The album features a mix of hard rock and acoustic folk rock. Cold Wind to Valhalla bridges the two. Anthemic and evocative, it summons up images of Norse legends. Band leader Ian Anderson mixes tempos and vocal styles, delighting in a celebration of the mysterious.

Enjoy this great song today.

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Song of the Day, March 7: With You There to Help Me by Jethro Tull

TullWithYouToday’s song is an amazing moment of transition for a mainstay of classic progressive rock. After two albums of blues-based rock, Jethro Tull were evolving their own distinct sound. Ian Anderson’s confidence as a flautist had grown significantly, touring had made the group more cohesive, and success allowed them greater freedom in the studio. As a result, their third disc, Benefit, was a little revelation.

It opens with an eerie flute figure, introducing the song With You There to Help Me. The track is a blend of smart playing, solid singing, clever studio work, and compelling energy. An anthem of collaboration — but not dependence — it heralds a maturity in Anderson’s work and opened the door for Tull’s rapid evolution over the next few albums.

Enjoy this great classic track today.

Song of the Day, November 30: Fires At Midnight by Jethro Tull

TullWoodFiresToday’s song is the perfect closer for Jethro Tull’s first prog-folk cycle, Songs From the Wood. Singer and songwriter Ian Anderson had recently moved his family to the countryside, and he drew inspiration from the natural beauty. He also tapped into the mystical folklore of the English forests and fields, resulting in a song cycle of mysterious characters, powerful forces, and natural energy.

To draw things to a close, he wrote a charming acoustic number, Fires At Midnight. It’s a sweet hearth and home song, bringing the narrator and the listener snugly into the parlor after all the outdoor adventures. Deceptively simple, it celebrates home as a place of safety and love, a remarkably sweet sentiment for an often cynical observer like Anderson. The energy of the album and the sincerity of his delivery make it work, however, and it’s one of the best moments in the band’s brief flirtation with folky themes.

Enjoy this lovely song today.

Song of the Day, September 15: Teacher by Jethro Tull

TullTeacherToday’s song is a b-side that became a classic. By mid-1970, Jethro Tull had settled into their longest-lasting and most productive line-up after recording their solid third album Benefit and bringing in new bassist Jeffrey Hammond. They released a non-album single, Witch’s Promise — a precursor to the naturalist prog folk they would specialize in later in the decade. The flip side was a song that Chrysalis substituted onto the US version of Benefit.

Teacher is a fun song, a warning about gurus who demand too much. The narrator welcomes a teacher into his life, paying his freight as they have a series of adventures. The teacher makes the most of it while his pupil throws his “world into the sea.” In the end, the teacher says thanks and walks away, leaving behind a very different lesson than the protagonist thought he would learn.

Ian Anderson provides a crisp vocal, shading in the irony that would become a regular part of the Tull sound on future discs. The band crunch along behind him, providing a nice, bluesy backdrop. Despite its humble start, the song became a fan favorite and a regular at live shows, eventually featuring on most of the band’s compilations.

Enjoy this fun lesson today.

Song of the Day, July 8: Heavy Horses by Jethro Tull

TullHeavyHorsesToday’s song is Ian Anderson’s tribute to working animals and the vanishing traditional farm. In the mid-70s, the leader of Jethro Tull bought a house in the country, settling down with his new wife. He took time to reflect on the English countryside and the connections between human and nature. The first album after this move, Songs From the Wood, explored folk traditions and the mystical side of nature. The follow-up looked at the more practical side of living with nature, celebrating the animals that one encounters and depends upon.

The centerpiece of Heavy Horses is its grand title track. A classic Tull epic, it features smart orchestration, surging rock, and delicate acoustic moments, all tied together by Anderson’s sensitive singing and charming flute work. The band are in fine form stretching their talents over the nearly nine minute track, underscoring the lyrical sincerity and passion. Both realistic and nostalgic, the song celebrates the significance of the workhorse while acknowledging — a bit sadly — the inevitability of progress.

Enjoy this amazing song today.

Song of the Day, April 16: Mother Goose by Jethro Tull

TullGooseToday’s song is Mother Goose by Jethro Tull. It appears on the band’s masterpiece, Aqualung, a great song cycle that balances hard rock with folk-tinged pop. This track balances the two nicely, a mostly acoustic number with driving energy. The nostalgic lyrics hint at the bucolic  landscapes that would feature strongly on later albums while biting wordplay shows singer and band leader Ian Anderson at his witty best.

Using the nursery rhyme trope of a walk past significant characters, Anderson ponders the passing of youth and the choices we make as we adopt — or eschew — responsibility. His chameleonic persona allows him to mingle with a variety of groups along the journey, making him and engaged observer. It’s a clever song with a charming musical setting and a highlight of Tull’s long, varied career.

Enjoy this fun song today.

Song of the Day, September 24: Reasons for Waiting by Jethro Tull

TullStandReasonsToday’s song is Reasons for Waiting from Jethro Tull’s transitional second album, Stand Up. After a bluesy debut, co-founder Mick Abrams left the band, leaving Ian Anderson as the group’s primary creative force. Anderson recruited the profoundly talented Martin Barre to fill the lead guitar slot; the pair have been the only constants in over 40 years of eclectic, progressive rock.

While Stand Up retains some of the blues that underpinned the early band (and would remain an element of their music for at least a decade), it shows a clear shift in tone and a real burst of creativity. Hints of folk and baroque rock fill out the sound and the quartet’s playing leaps to a whole new level. The standout track is Reasons for Waiting, featuring lovely acoustic guitar and lush strings. Anderson’s lyrics are wistful and hopeful, weaving a beautiful tapestry of words and song. His flute playing — now more confident — gives the track a distinctive flavor that helps establish the Tull sound.

Enjoy this beautiful classic today.

Song of the Day, October 10: For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me by Jethro Tull

WorldSpaceWeekTullCollinsBenefitCelebrating World Space Week, October 4 – 10!

Today’s song is For Michael Collins, Jeffrey, and Me by Jethro Tull. It appears on their fourth album, Benefit, released a year after the Apollo 11 moon landing. Writer and singer Ian Anderson name-checks Apollo astronaut Michael Collins, who stayed with the command module while Armstrong and Aldrin landed on the moon. The title also refers to Jeffrey Hammond (aka Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond) a long-time friend of Anderson’s who appeared in a couple of song titles and who joined Tull as their bass player for the next album.

The song is a great reflection on “the ape’s curiosity” bringing humans into space. The second verse imagines how Collins might have felt, simultaneously left out of the famous walk but also holding the greatest responsibility for the success of the mission. It’s a powerful, touching song, one of Anderson’s finest lyrics.

I’m with you L.E.M.
though it’s a shame that it had to be you.
The mother ship is just a blip
from your trip made for two.
I’m with you boys, so please employ just a little extra care.

Enjoy this great song today.

Song of the Day, September 3: Living In the Past by Jethro Tull

Jethro_Tull_-_Living_In_The_PastToday’s song is Living In the Past by Jethro Tull. It was originally recorded during the sessions for the band’s second album, 1969’s Stand Up. While it didn’t make the cut, the song was strong enough that it was released as a stand-alone single. Three years later, its title proved prescient.

Booming band success in the wake of Aqualung resulted in the release of a compilation album bringing together singles, B-sides, EP material, and some unreleased tracks. Also titled Living In the Past, the two-disc set provided a nice supplement to the band’s main albums to date. It also prompted the re-release of the single, which made it to #11 on the Hot 100, Tull’s best performance with a US single.

Musically, it’s an unusual track, performed in 5/4 time. WIth a driving rhythm section and a buoyant lyric, it’s a fun song that shows off Ian Anderson’s voice and flute while proving what a crack band Jethro Tull was.

Once I used to join in
every boy and girl was my friend.
Now there’s revolution, but they don’t know
what they’re fighting.
Let us close out eyes;
outside their lives go on much faster.
Oh, we won’t give in,
we’ll keep living in the past.

Enjoy this wonderful song today.

Album of the Week, November 18: Aqualung by Jethro Tull

Singer Ian Anderson spent most of the 60s is an ever-changing lineup of bands playing blue-eyed soul and British blues. By 1968, the band Jethro Tull had coalesced around Anderson — who had taken up the flute by this point — and guitarist Mick Abrahams. They released one album before tension between the two forced Abrahams out. His replacement, Martin Barre, has been with the band ever since and is second only to Anderson in the trademark sound of the band. Three years and a bit more lineup change later, the band released their fourth album. Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond (bass) and John Evan (keyboards) had performed with Anderson before, and the chemistry was just right. Variously labelled a pioneering concept album and one of the first fully formed progressive rock albums, Aqualung was unquestionably a masterpiece.

Title Aqualung
Act Jethro Tull
Label Chrysalis Release Date  3/19/1971
Producer Ian Anderson and Terry Ellis
U.S. Chart  #7 U.K. Chart  #4
Tracks
[U.S. Hot 100]
  1. Aqualung
  2. Cross-Eyed Mary
  3. Cheap Day Return
  4. Mother Goose
  5. Wond’ring Aloud
  6. Up to Me
  7. My God
  8. Hymn 43 [#91]
  9. Slipstream
  10. Locomotive Breath
  11. Wind-Up

The band resist the “concept album” label, with Anderson strenuously asserting that Aqualung is “just a collection of songs.” Regardless of their intent, the eleven tracks are so consistent and cohesive — both musically and lyrically — that its easy to consider it a meditation on faith, both its strengths and shortcomings. Side one of the original disc was also labelled “Aqualung” — contrasting with side two’s “My God” — creating yet another lens through which to view the content. However one chooses to approach it, the blues-rock foundation, folky enhancements, sharp lyrics, and masterful musicianship make this a powerful listen.

The cover portrait and title character came from a series of photos that Anderson’s wife, Jennie, took of the homeless along the Thames embankment. While the impetus to name the character “Aqualung” is lost to time, the powerful ode to the disenfranchised serves as a perfect kickoff to the album. Barre turns in some of his finest work throughout the album, and his solo on the title track is frequently mentioned on best-of lists. From this solid launch, the album moves into similar territory with Cross-Eyed Mary, a musically solid but less interesting look at the corruption of innocence.

While the craftsmanship is solid and unified throughout the album, there are three distinct types of songs on Aqualung. The third track, Cheap Day Return, is one of three short acoustic bridges. Each features a quiet vocal and lovely acoustic guitar by Anderson with minimal accompaniment. Each is a snapshot of a personal moment, injecting intimate moments into the larger themes. Cheap Day Return reflects on a visit to Anderson’s terminally ill father. Track 5, Wond’ring Aloud, is a beautiful meditation on sharing oneself with another person, filled with homey images. The final bridge song, Slipstream, appears at track 9 and provides a moment of surrender to larger forces before the rocking close to the album.

Aqualung also introduces a strong folk-rock element that would become a staple of Tull albums in the 70s. Tracks 4 and 6 — Mother Goose and Up To Me respectively — clearly belong to this category. Both also engage in a witty wordplay that had been hinted at previously but truly blossoms here. Mother Goose uses many traditional English idioms to explore youth, growth, and secrets, captured in the singer’s engagement with the title character. Up To Me picks up the wonderful wordplay, with Anderson exploring various forms of relationships as he works through every possible permutation of the title line.

The balance of the album are blues-based rockers, showing off the band’s chops to great effect. The two opening tracks clearly fit in this mold before ceding the album to softer instrumentation until side two. That side kicks off with its title track, My God, one of three that clearly show a disillusionment with organized religion and a yearning for meaningful faith. In just over seven minutes it gives all five band members a chance to show their stuff and shake things loose. Hymn 43 is far more pointed, dissecting religion in a biting three minutes anchored by the chorus of “If Jesus saves, He’d better save himself.” This was the album’s only single, edging into the Hot 100 for two weeks.

After sliding into Slipstream, the album rocks out for its closing tracks. The final song, Wind-Up, is the third analysis of religion and faith and works well to wrap up the disc on a thoughtful, consistent note. Just before that close, however, Aqualung hits its real high point. Locomotive Breath is one of the bands finest songs, a driving rocker with a stunning vocal and perfect contributions by each band member. Whichever lens one chooses to use for the album, Locomotive Breath works. It’s a tale of powerlessness and betrayal — by friends, lovers, and God — and uses the potentially dangerous train metaphor to one of its best effects ever.

After Aqualung, Clive Bunker quit the band, replaced by longtime Anderson associate Barrie Barlow. With arranger David Palmer coming aboard as an official member (keyboards) and one change in bass player in 1976, Tull had its most stable lineup and most consistently creative period through the 70s. Anderson and Barre still record and perform, hanging on to the legacy of a brilliant album and a quirky but powerful contribution to rock.

FURTHER LISTENING: Given the band’s many personnel and stylistic changes over the years, this devolves a bit into “How do you like your Tull?” Anderson’s clever lyricism, racy wit, strong voice, and creative flute playing are constants as is Barre’s stellar guitar work. From there, your mileage may vary. A few albums are standouts, however.

Benefit, the album preceding Aqualung, is a stunning transitional album. Anderson’s flute and acoustic guitar come into their own and blend potently with Barre’s amazing electric lead guitar. Tull slowly emerges from their blues roots and find their own sound in a strong set of songs. Thick As A Brick is an album-long song, a complex, challenging, often frustrating meditation on life. Anderson crafted it out of his irritation at the critics who called Aqualung a concept album. It’s an interesting experiment and very well performed but not one of my favorites. It was their best-selling, however, and rivals Aqualung on the best-of lists. Minstrel In the Gallery is the closest to Aqualung in terms of cohesiveness and consistency. Recorded in 1975 with the classic Tull lineup, it is the best showcase of the band’s Elizabethan pretensions and a solid mix of rockers and folky songs. From there the band went a bit more pastoral for a while, and the strongest showing on that front is Songs From the Wood, a wonderful blending of folk imagery and diverse rock settings.  Heavy Horses, a solid set of songs about the decline of agriculture is nearly as good.

Many compilation albums are out there as well, covering solid material and mostly missing some of the filler that shows up on the original albums. Of these, the best are 1976’s M.U., which sadly misses four solid albums, and 1993’s two-disc Anniversary Collection, which is a great overview even if it has a bit too much from the less interesting 80s work.

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