By Richard Krueger
Retrenching after the thwarted theatrical ambitions of A Passion Play, War Child and Too Old to Rock and Roll, Too Young to Die, Ian Anderson moved from London to Buckinghamshire in 1976. The Jethro Tull album that followed Anderson’s country retreat, Songs from the Wood, showcased a fruitful new path for both the writer and the band.
With Anderson’s withering cynicism relaxing (ever so slightly) into amused, skeptical acceptance of human folly, David Palmer’s energetic keyboard counterpoint refreshing the group’s core sound, and a focus on traditional British folklore and festivity (courtesy of PR guy/manager Jo Lustig and Anderson’s production work with Steeleye Span), the surprising results included increased record sales, higher chart positions, and expanded tour dates, especially in America. Parlophone’s latest reissue box, released for the 40th anniversary of Songs from the Wood, ably showcases this incarnation of Tull’s appeal.
Whether observing the world around him or sharing a fictional narrator’s thoughts, Ian Anderson’s lyrics before Songs from the Wood typically engaged his audience by confronting them –with human suffering (“Aqualung,” “Cross-Eyed Mary”), clueless authority (“Wind Up,” “Thick as A Brick”), or even the seductive attractions of a dangerous liaison (“Bungle in the Jungle”). Contrast that perspective with the beginning of Songs from the Wood’s title track:
Let me bring you songs from the wood
To make you feel much better than you could know.
For once, Anderson invites us– to pull up a chair and “join the chorus if you can” in “Songs from the Wood,” to connect with the natural world in “Cup of Wonder” and “Ring Out, Solstice Bells.” The knowingly bawdy takes on the ways of man and maid like “Velvet Green” and “The Whistler” are more genial, too – invitations to love (well, maybe lust) that downplay darker undercurrents. The only human predator on the album, the title character of “Hunting Girl,” is the one character who brings out Anderson’s mockery, and the final two songs depict genuine heartbreak in “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)” and genuine contentment in the gorgeous “Fires at Midnight.” (It should be said that Anderson’s more jaundiced outlook is alive and well on album outtakes like the epic “Old Aces Die Hard,” an early version of “Working John, Working Joe” and the B-side “Strip Cartoon.”)
The band responds to Anderson’s mellower sentiments with an expanded musical palette. David Palmer, on his first album as a full member of Tull, drives much of this with fresh keyboard colors (portativ pipe organ, given its own picture in the box set book, and harpsichord) and a penchant for insistent interplay with Anderson’s flute, John Evans’ Hammond B-3, and Martin Barre’s stinging guitar. Stir in Barriemore Barlow’s Renaissance percussion kit with his usual piledriver drumming, add John Glascock’s nimble bass work, and, voila — an airier group sound that still packs a lot of punch!
Beyond the album and the aforementioned outtakes, the alternate versions included here are fun – although it’s good that Anderson played the 4/4, heavy guitar version of “Solstice Bells” (retitled “Magic Bells” for a Christmas single? Come on!) to Chrysalis Records support staff and nipped its release in the bud. It’s also interesting, if not necessarily compelling, to hear “Songs from the Wood” with fewer a cappella breaks and a blues rock intro to “Fires at Midnight.”
At this point, the prog community may take the wonders of a Steven Wilson remix for granted; nevertheless, his work here shows that buffing up the Jethro Tull catalogue has been an ongoing labor of love for him, on par with his King Crimson and Yes remixes. The stereo remix of Songs from the Wood is pretty subtle, but it definitely gives the music added clarity and power, with lots of intricate detail to get lost in and a wonderfully integrated soundstage. Despite the complexity of the counterpoint and the overdubs, Wilson’s efforts solidify the impression of Tull as a crack unit, following Anderson’s lead with vigor and a sense of fun.
And there’s more: miraculously restored audio and video of a complete 1977 live show from Landover, Maryland (kudos aplenty to Jakko Jakszyk for both his herculean efforts and his charmingly self-deprecating notes). Anderson is eminently watchable in red derby and jodhpurs, hamming it up and puncturing arena rock cliche at every opportunity (introducing the “backing vocalists” on “Songs from the Wood,” he proclaims their work “almost indistinguishable from the master tape playing behind the stage!”) The band locks in on a well-turned mix of greatest hits to date and a sprinkling of Songs from the Wood tracks. This is Jethro Tull in their pomp, playing to the balconies of vast US sports stadiums, stretching solo spots beyond the breaking point, then snapping back into another classic with spirit and enthusiasm.
As usual, the notes, essays and recording details included here are informative and thorough – whatever your thoughts on Tull’s output, the deluxe reissue series is consistently good value at a reasonable price. This one definitely brings back fond memories for me – of hearing “Songs from the Wood,” “Cup of Wonder,” and “Hunting Girl” on Detroit rock radio in 1977, of seeing “The Whistler” pop up in the Detroit News’ “Words and Chords” feature right next to the Billboard Top 10 Album chart, and of realizing over the decades that Songs from the Wood is one Jethro Tull album I can get behind and enjoy without reservation.