Sunday, May 21, 2017

Review of Jethro Tull's "The String Quartets"

I posted this review earlier this evening on the Putnik Music website:

Review Summary: At best, this is a niche album for a very specialized group of Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull fans.

It probably won't come as a shock to many people that in spite of the fact that The String Quartets is being released under the "Jethro Tull" moniker, this isn't really a Jethro Tull album. Instead, it's an LP by Ian Anderson and a classical string quartet, with an occasional assist from Tull keyboard player John O'Hara, performing rearranged versions of a number of Jethro Tull classics. It was released as a Jethro Tull album ... well, to be honest, probably because the label figured it would make more money than it would have if it had simply been released as an Ian Anderson album. And maybe more legitimately, because these are reworked versions of songs that were previously featured on real Jethro Tull albums, even though the names have all been changed (e.g., "Living in the Past" becomes "In the Past", "Aqualung" becomes "Aquafugue", etc.) for purposes of keeping the royalties straight.

The string quartet in question is called The Carducci Quartet, and while I'd never claim to be any kind of an expert in classical music, they do a rather nice job throughout. From what I've read about them, they seem to specialize in performing more modern music -- they recorded an album with composer Philip Glass, for example -- so I guess they were a fairly natural choice for a project like this.

In some ways, the idea of doing this album is logical. As a flautist, Anderson's instrument of choice is a natural for classical music. Several of his solo efforts, especially the all-instrumental Divinities: Twelve Dances With God LP, have certainly flirted with the classical music genre. (In fact, Divinities was released on a classical music label.) Besides, a decent percentage of the Tull repertoire, especially the material from their Songs From the Wood/Heavy Horses period, seems to lend itself comfortably to a classical music treatment. So where does this project go wrong?

Sadly, in a couple of places. Let's start with the vocals. There are twelve songs on The String Quartets. Half are all-instrumental, and half feature vocals. I wish they didn't. It's well known among Tull fans that Anderson's voice has been shot for better than 25 years now. Some sources claim his throat problems began in the mid-'80s during the Under Wraps tour, but they became unmistakably noticeable by the early '90s. He's dealt with them over the years in several ways, including scheduling more instrumental interludes into the band's live sets; singing in a strange, very pronounced way, that often forces him to sing his words just slightly behind the actual music of any given song; and in recent years, by employing a second singer, to spell him when he needs it and to sing the parts he just can't reach anymore. Prior to this album, however, Anderson was always able to mask these deficiencies pretty well on his studio work. No more. On String Quartets, his voice sounds weak and barely on-key. His flute playing is, at times, exquisite here. I just wish he'd chosen not to sing.

The selection of songs on this LP is mostly sensible. Mostly, but not totally. As stated earlier, the Tull material from their Elizabethan/rustic period translates well to a more classical treatment, as do early-period songs such as "Living in the Past", "Sossity, You're a Woman/Reasons for Waiting" and "We Used to Know". (I'm using the original song titles here for clarity). "A Christmas Song" translates well musically, although in this case, I wish they'd done it as an instrumental just because it's always had some of Anderson's worst-ever lyrics. ("So how can you laugh when your own mother's hungry?" Um, who does that, Ian? Name me one person.)

The rearranged "Aqualung" is awful, however, as you might expect when you're trying to translate a hard rock song into an all-strings-and-flute format, and "Locomotive Breath" doesn't fare any better. And while I like the original "Bungle in the Jungle" as much as anyone, this is a song that really gets uplifted by the cleverness of the lyrics. It's so repetitive musically, though, that done instrumentally and in this format, it strays into the realm of elevator music (and poor elevator music, at that).

To make matters worse, the label makes it clear that as far as they're concerned, it's all about sucking a few last bucks out of loyal Jethro Tull fans. They drive this point home by getting the order of the songs wrong on both the back of the CD sleeve and the back of the CD booklet inside, although they do at least manage to get it right on the booklet's inside front cover. Obviously, if they could have grabbed me by my ankles, turned me upside down and shook me to get at my money, they would have. But since my door has good locks, they slapped this album together instead.

I'm not going to say that The String Quartets is completely without merit. If you're a fan of Jethro Tull, and you also like light classical music, it might still be worth your while picking this album up, especially since you never know how much longer Ian Anderson will continue recording and performing. Know what you're buying, though. This is at best a niche album for a very particular kind of Ian Anderson/Jethro Tull fan.

Rating: 2/5 stars