Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of Jethro Tull's "The Jethro Tull Christmas Album"

I posted this one earlier today on the Sputnik Music website:

Review Summary: Jethro Tull is the one seventies rock band who can credibly pull off a Christmas album.

There aren't too many of the so-called "classic" rock bands from the seventies that could pull off a Christmas album. Picture, if you will, A Led Zeppelin Christmas, or Rush Sings "Santa Baby". Horrifying, right" Even the bands from that era who've successfully managed to create a Christmas song with some lasting power, like The Kinks ("Father Christmas") or Emerson, Lake & Palmer ("I Believe in Father Christmas") would probably be hard pressed to manage an entire album of holiday music. For Jethro Tull, however, it's something of a natural. For one thing, they had already recorded at least three Christmas-themed songs over the years prior to this LP: "Christmas Song", a single that was eventually released on 1972's Living in the Past; "Jack Frost and the Hooded Crow", a song that was recorded earlier and released for the 1988 boxed set 20 Years of Jethro Tull; and "Another Christmas Song", from the 1989 Rock Island album. Then there was that whole Elizabethan/rustic music period that Tull went through in the late seventies with their Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses albums, where the overall sound feels appropriate for Christmas even when the lyrics have nothing to do with it. All told, you'd have to say that if any of the major rock bands from years of old was going to put off a respectable Christmas album, Jethro Tull would be your best candidate.

So how'd they do? Not bad, actually. Not bad at all. The Jethro Tull Christmas Album was released (to little fanfare) in 2003. The band at the time consisted of Tull mastermind Ian Anderson (flute, vocals, acoustic guitar, and an assortment of other instruments); Martin Lancelot Barre (I just love that his middle name is "Lancelot") (electric and acoustic guitars); Andrew Giddings (keyboards, accordion and keyboard bass); Jonathan Noyce (bass guitar); and Doane Perry (drums and percussion). It was the last official Jethro Tull studio album prior to this year's lamentable The String Quartets LP. It weighs in at an impressive 16 tracks long (so you can pop it on your listening device of choice and proceed to wrap a sizable number of holiday presents before it ends), including at least six or so that have never been recorded before (sorry for being so imprecise here, but over the years, Anderson has tended to throw snippets of songs like "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen" into the middle of various live tracks, and I'm just not patient enough to go back and dig all of them up just to give you a solid number here).

Anyway, it's actually a really good album, but it's geared toward a very specialized audience. What do I mean by that? Well, for starters, you have to already be the type of person who is predisposed to like Christmas music. I know that there are a lot of you out there, and you're into your metal, or your jazz, or your experimental electronica. And every year, December rolls around, and the music you're surrounded by almost everywhere you go just makes you want to shoot yourself. Or at best, it just goes right through you without you even noticing, like when you call your doctor's office and they play that tinny stuff while you're stuck on hold. Yeah, you know who you are. This album isn't for you. Even if you're a Jethro Tull fan, and you like them for their Aqualung and Thick As a Brickperiod, but then they just got ridiculous, and you completely tuned them out until maybe Crest of a Knave, this one won't be for you either. But if you at least have a tolerance for holiday music, and Tull's Elizabethan period was one of your favorites, then congratulations, Bucko! You're the target audience!

So what have you got here? Well, there are new recordings of each of the three Tull Christmas songs I mentioned earlier. There are also re-recordings of a couple of songs that aren't specifically holiday- themed, but sound like they belong, including "Weathercock" from Heavy Horses, "Fire at Midnight" and "Ring Out Solstice Bells" (all right, maybe that last one is sort of a Christmas song) from Songs From the Wood, and "Bouree", which goes all the way back to the Stand Up (1969) album. Then there are instrumental versions of various holiday classics, including "God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen", "Holly Herald" (a medley that includes "The Holly and the Ivy" and "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing"), "Greensleeved" (a jazzy version of "Greensleeves"), and "We Five Kings" (a jazzy version of "We Three Kings"). There are also a couple of other appropriate-sounding instrumentals, including "Pavane", by the 20th-century French composer Gabriel Faure, and "A Winter Snowscape", an original penned by Barre.

Finally, as a special Christmas bonus, there are three brand new songs, complete with vocals and lyrics, written by Anderson. The best of these is "Last Man at the Party", a fast-paced, flute-driven number filled with Anderson's wry humor as he describes the alcohol-saturated holiday celebrations of various characters such as Sister Bridget, Cousin Jimmy (or maybe it's Possum Jimmy) and Stinky Joe ("From down the street/He fell right over/His own three feet"). Then there's "First Snow on Brookyn", a quiet and slightly sad number sung from the perspective of a very human guardian angel. Finally, "Birthday Card at Christmas" is a pleasant but forgettable little ditty that runs through a brief catalog of typical Yuletide imagery.

A Jethro Tull Christmas isn't by any means the album the band will be remembered for. It is, however, a cordial enough little collection filled with holiday and near-holiday tunes that is bound to enhance the Christmas season for a certain type of Tull fan. Being such a fan myself, I can honestly say it makes my Decembers just a little brighter every year. If albums like Songs From the Wood and Heavy Horses are an essential part of your music collection, you just might feel the same.

Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars