Let's be honest - when you think of the band Jethro Tull it's Ian Anderson's manic face that immediately comes to mind. He is the very heart and soul of the band. Without the legendary mad flautist there would be no Tull. For nearly forty five years his patented one-legged flamingo stance and energetic on stage antics have endeared him to a legion of adoring fans. The band's ultimate contributions to the prog/rock genre are their two epic single-track concept albums: "Thick As A Brick" and "A Passion Play".
But something seemed amiss in 2012 when Anderson opted to release the sequel to the 1972 classic Tull album "Thick As A Brick" forty years later not as a Jethro Tull album - but as the solo project "Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson - TAAB2 (Thick As A Brick 2)".
True enough other than guitarist Martin Barre, the original members of the "Thick As A Brick" recording sessions (Barrie Barlow, Jeffery Hammond-Hammond, and Jon Evan) are no longer a part of his touring and recording band - but that's been the case since 1975. Yet the lack of personnel continuity didn't keep Anderson from calling each subsequent release a Jethro Tull album. Following "A Passion Play" Tull went on to record 16 additional studio albums: "War Child", "Minstrel In The Gallery", "Too Old To Rock And Roll: Too Young To Die", "Songs From The Wood", "Heavy Horses", "Stormwatch", "A", "The Broadsword And The Beast", "Under Wraps", "Crest Of A Knave", "Rock Island", "Catfish Rising", "Nightcap", "Roots To Branches", "J-Tull Dot Com", and "The Jethro Tull Christmas Album". And the list of contributing artists differs on each recording.
He also recorded four solo albums during his time with Tull ("Walk Into Light" - 1983, "Divinities: Twelve Dances With God" - 1995, "The Secret Language Of Birds" - 2000, and "Rupi's Dance" - 2003), so it's nothing new for Anderson to pursue his Muse and express ideas beyond the scope of Jethro Tull - the band. But this is something altogether different - "TAAB2" is a sequel to a Jethro Tull classic, and lumping it in among solo projects like "The Secret Language Of Birds" doesn't seem quite copacetic.
One possibility that may have influenced his decision could be the absence of guitarist Martin Barre from the project - the one stalwart member of Jethro Tull who played alongside Anderson on every album following the 1968 debut.
Jethro Tull has always been a hard band to categorize or pigeonhole into a specific genre. The band moves stealthily from blues to medieval folk, prog to raucous rock and roll, beatnik spoken word poetry, and during the 80s' there was a dash of synths, sequencers and electronics ala "Miami Vice" and Jan Hammer. In 1988 they shocked the music world by receiving the Grammy for 'Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Vocal or Instrumental' for their album "Crest Of A Knave", beating out favorites Metallica for their heavy metal monster, "... And Justice For All". Entertainment Weekly decreed it one of the Biggest Upsets in Grammy History. And I rank it alongside the Genesis induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame as an Award Show moment to cherish and remember til the day I drop dead.
My introduction to Jethro Tull was their 1968 debut "This Was", and I must admit to being less than enthused. The band on the album cover resembled a hillbilly jug band or a group of boxcar hobos sitting around a campfire. The music was a strange combination of blues and jazz ... oftentimes sounding exactly as I expected the band on the cover to sound. Years later a friend with a mutual taste in music suggested revisiting Jethro Tull and the album "Aqualung" - and it was a revelation. I was flabbergasted! How did that band of scraggly ragamuffins responsible for "This Was" magically transitioned into the amazing musicians responsible for "Aqualung"? So I set about immersing myself in this new found musical revelation, immediately purchasing "Stand Up" and "Benefit" to fill in the missing gap. And haven't looked back since. Jethro Tull is an auto-purchase for me.
It has been written that Ian Anderson composed the magnum opus "Thick As A Brick" as a parody of the bombastic concept albums from British prog rockers. In an interview Anderson stated "the album was a spoof to the albums of YES and Emerson, Lake And Palmer, much like what the movie Airplane! had been to Airport." But somewhere in the process - possibly the fact that the album was a financial success - turned the joke on it's ear. And Anderson was a bit less dismissive and condescending of the genre, jumping on the prog/rock bandwagon for their followed-up, "A Passion Play" another single-track concept album. And were it not for generally poor reviews from critics (although a financial success), Anderson and Company may have continued in this vein a bit longer.
With the passage of time a majority of critics and concert goers alike have commented on the deterioration of Anderson's uneven vocals in the live venue. Masking his faltering vocal prowess has resulted in altering songs to a more manageable key. And on his current "Thick As A Brick 1 & 2" tour Anderson enlists vocalist Ryan O'Donnell to tackle the more dynamic vocal chores of the first album. But happily, Anderson's vocals on "TAAB2" are spot-on perfect - right in his comfort range. So if you have reservations based on disparaging comments made of Anderson's vocal chops ... have no fear - he sounds amazingly rejuvenated on the album.
I commented in an earlier review about my inability to wrap my head around most epic progressive concept albums. They tend to be convoluted bits of psychobabble and gobbledygook known only to the lyricist while clear as mud to the befuddled listener. Such is the case with the original "Thick As A Brick", an album supposedly based on a poem scribed by 8 year old literary prodigy Gerald "Little Milton" Bostock. As the article on the "Thick As A Brick" album cover reveals the young lad initially won a poetry contest but after protests concerning the offensive nature of his work the judges repealed their decision, disqualifying the poem and questioning Gerald's psychological instability. Were it not for the newspaper print cover art we'd never know what this album was about.
"TAAB2" is a much easier tale to follow and comprehend as Anderson presents a hypothetical pondering of five divergent possibilities that Gerald Bostock may have taken these forty years later: a greedy investment banker, a homosexual homeless man (victim of sexual abuse from the Housemaster while a youth), a soldier in the Afghan War, a sanctimonious evangelical preacher, and an average working class Joe who runs a corner store. Yet with each possibility, Bostock's fate is destined to conclude in lonely solitude. Or as Anderson explains in his liner note: "In the development of the piece, the divergences of life's infinitely forked roads finally give way to a gravitational pull which brings us back in convergence to a, perhaps pre-ordained, karma-like conclusion." And although "TAAB2" is presented as a concept piece it is not one continuous transitional composition as the original "Thick As A Brick". "TAAB2" is comprised of nine distinct songs with multiple movements sub-divided within each track. For this reason the musical presentation shares more in common with traditional albums like "Aqualung", "Stormwatch", "The Broadsword And The Beast", or "Rock Island" than the single-track composition "Thick As A Brick".
Whether performing as Jethro Tull or on one of his many solo projects, Ian Anderson surrounds himself with an excellent ensemble of musicians, and "TAAB2" is no different: John O'Hara (Hammond organ, piano, keyboards), David Goodier (Bass guitar, glockenspiel), Florian Opahle (Electric guitar), Scott Hammond (drums, percussion), Ryan O'Donnell (additional vocals), Peter Judge (trumpet, flugelhorn, tenor horn, and E-flat tuba). The musical arrangements smack of 70s' era Tull with Ian's fluttering flute, the great vintage sound of an authentic growling Hammond organ, awesome guitar work - both electric and acoustic, and a tight rhythm section.
"TAAB2" is a fitting sequel to the progressive rock masterpiece that climbed to the Number One spot on the 1972 Billboard Chart. Familiar refrains of "Thick As A Brick" intentionally echo throughout the disc on tunes like "From A Pebble Thrown" and "Old School Song"; as well as influences from Anderson's complete body of work with Tull - "Shunt And Shuffle" smacks of "Cross-Eyed Mary"; the poetic "Cosy Corner" brings to mind "The Story Of The Hare Who Lost His Spectacles", and echoes of "Hot Mango Flush" from the album "J-Tull Dot Com" filter through his spoken word passages. Every element that makes for a great Jethro Tull album is on display in this collection of tunes, as bits of "Songs From The Wood", "Heavy Horses", "Passion Play" and "Stand-Up" swirl throughout the compositions. Great driving rock, thoughtful melodic ballads, and some delightfully wicked lyrics.
Of special note is the exceptional production value on the disc which is both warm and inviting - yet pristine and punchy - with none of the harsh or compressed production values associated with so many of today's digital recordings. Special nod to Porcupine Tree's Steve Wilson who acted as mixing engineer during the recording session.
Hard core proggers may not be as enamored with the sequel as they were the original but "Thick As A Brick 2" is a must have for long standing fans and admirers of Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull. Highly recommended!
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on January 31st, 2013