Sunday, March 4, 2018

Review of Jethro Tull's "Under Wraps"

I posted this review on the Sputnik Music website about 30 minutes ago:

Review Summary: A Jethro Tull album for fans of Ultravox and Gary Numan

I mostly try to review albums that haven't had a previous write-up on this site. The only time I break this rule is when 1) I feel I have points to make that haven't already been made in previous reviews; or 2) When I feel that an album has been either misunderstood or unfairly maligned by previous reviewers, or I at least feel that I have a different perspective to contribute. This review falls into the latter category.

Under Wraps has never gotten a lot of love, from critics or even from many Jethro Tull fans. I used to think it was just about the synthesizers -- Tull morphed over the years from a blues rock band to a progressive rock band to a folk band, etc., and except for the few studio albums at the end of their career, their synthesizer period was their least popular one. The more I thought about it, though, the more I realized there was more to it. A (1980) went over reasonably well with the fans, and the song "Black Sunday" is particularly well loved. Even Broadsword and the Beast (1982) gets some respect. Its rating on Sputnik Music is 3.3, which puts it somewhere between "Good" and "Excellent". But poor little Under Wraps is the band's lowest rated studio album on the site, with an anemic score of 1.9, and that's with 106 votes as of this writing, a decent-sized sample. Worse still, the one review that exists for the album, written in 2010 by a respected reviewer, scores it at 1.5, placing it in the "Very Poor" category. I've always liked the album, so I asked myself, what is it that makes so many others disparage it so" And it comes down to three words (or two, if you count a hyphenated word as one word): Peter-John Vettese.

Vettese joined Jethro Tull as their keyboardist for the Broadsword album. Tull overlord Ian Anderson must have liked something about him, because while Anderson is still credited as the songwriter for all of that album's songs, there is a footnote that credits Vettese with "additional material". This in itself is unusual in Tullworld. After Mick Abrahams departed the band at the completion of their first album in 1968, Anderson has been their prime creative force, and he hasn't often been prone to sharing. However, after Broadsword, Anderson invited Vettese to actually collaborate with him on his mostly unknown solo album, Walk Into Light. This collaboration continued on Under Wraps, with Vettese sharing songwriting credit on seven of the LP's original eleven songs.

"So what was the problem"" you ask. Well, for many people, the first unpardonable sin was the choice by Anderson to record the album using a drum machine rather than a live drummer. This decision immediately angered many Tull fans. And then there was the synth work. It wasn't so much the use of synthesizers itself that put off fans as it was Vettese's style of playing. As I stated earlier, a lot of the A album went over well enough, but that was with Eddie Jobson on keyboard's. Jobson plays a grand style that was familiar to progressive rock fans, close enough to those of players like Rick Wakeman and Keith Emerson to feel comfortable for Tull's fan base. 

Vettese's mode of playing, though, is way more '80s, but also a very particular kind of '80s -- we're not talking Spandau Ballet or Erasure happy dance pop here. While there isn't really anyone who plays exactly like him, what he was doing for Anderson and Tull was much closer to Gary Numan or Ultravox music than it was to music familiar to longtime Tull fans. The problem at the time of Under Wraps' release was that many (if not most) '80s fans weren't about to give a listen to a '70s rock dinosaur like Jethro Tull, and most Tull fans felt the same way about '80s music. So Walk Into Light, and especially Under Wraps, were albums in limbo -- the people most likely to enjoy them ('80s fans) weren't going to give them a listen, and the people who were willing to give them a listen ('70s-music-loving Tull fans) weren't particularly predisposed to like what they heard. Consequently, the album was very poorly received, and afterwards, in order to keep his fan base happy, Anderson had little choice but to go back to the more basic rock style heard on 1987's Crest of a Knave.

I'm not going to claim that Under Wraps is one of Tull's top albums. It's not in the same stratosphere as LPs like AqualungThick as a Brick or Songs From the Wood. What I will say, though, is that there's a lot of good material on here. The one quiet acoustic number, "Under Wraps #2", has endured, and deservedly so -- it's a little gem, in the same category as tracks from previous albums such as "Wond'ring Aloud" or "Dun Ringill". But other numbers I love here include the semi-acoustic "European Legacy", the brash "Heat", and the seriously strange "Nobody's Car". And I've always felt that "Later, That Same Evening" would be a perfect companion piece to Thomas Dolby's "One of Our Submarines". 

Vettese's playing here is very in-your-face, even strident at times, but I find it consistently interesting. And throughout the LP, he does all kinds of innovative little sampling things with Anderson's voice that enhance the music. As for the lyrics, there's an overall cold war/spy theme to most of the songs (Anderson is an avid fan of spy novels), that I think makes Under Wraps kind of fun. I'll grant you that some of the tracks (say, "Apogee" or "Saboteur") are uninspired, but there's more than enough quality material on here to make this a worthwhile album. 

Vettese left Jethro Tull after Under Wraps, although he did add some keyboards to some of the tracks on the 1989 Rock Island album. He went on to work with a number of '80s bands such as Frankie Goes to Hollywood, Go West, Pet Shop Boys and Simple Minds, and even contributed his keyboard work to Annie Lennox's Grammy Nominated Diva album. I'm sorry he didn't stay with the band longer. While I realize I'm in the minority here, I like Under Wraps (and Walk Into Light) better than Crest of a Knave or any of the albums Tull released after it. Like Rodney Dangerfield, it didn't get any respect. But it deserved to.

Rating: 3 of 5 stars