11 September 2010

CD RETRO REVIEW: Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

As a special treat for today, we'll spin down the long ages and let them sing their song...

By the time Jethro Tull released Thick as a Brick in 1972, the band had already seen radical shifts in membership and musical style. Starting out as more of a blues based band in the late 1960’s, the band shed original guitarist Mick Abrahams after only one album, quickly leaving behind strictly blues based material in favour of Ian Anderson’s originals, which often straddled a thin and easily blurred line between rock, folk and jazz stylings. Thick as a Brick saw Anderson as the only original, founder member of the group still in Jethro Tull, surrounded by long time member Martin Barre and newer members John Evan (who had actually been a member of the group prior to it becoming Jethro Tull) on organ, Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond (himself the subject of several Tull songs) on bass and Barriemore Barlow on drums. Dee Palmer contributed brass and string arrangements for what would become one of Jethro Tull’s defining albums.

Following along from Aqualung, the band’s commercial breakthrough, Anderson found himself shocked that critics labeled the work a concept album. His response, then, was to give the critics what they apparently wanted; a concept album so over the top as to almost become a mockery of the term. The album was built around an epic poem contributed by “Gerald Bostock,” ostensibly an 8 year old school student who wrote the award winning piece for a competition; he would later be stripped of his award for using the word “g__r” on live television. Bostock is, of course, Ian Anderson himself, and the lyrics relate several scenes and themes about growth, growing up, and maturity, filtered through Anderson’s always-cynical world view. The album also saw Jethro Tull expanding their sonic palate; known for their use of the flute in a rock idiom, Thick as a Brick saw them add synthesizer, harpsichord, xylophone, Hammond organ, violin, lute, and a string section to their traditional rock instrumentation.

Jethro Tull’s folk influences are on fine display during the first several minutes of side one, as Anderson’s flute line (almost a signature now, and an incessantly addictive hook) plays with strummed guitar, with Anderson’s folky vocals riding over all. John Evan joins for the second iteration of the verse, adding a jaunty piano line, followed by light drumming courtesy of Barlow. The first radio edit ends with Anderson’s “Spin me back down the years” lines, which lead into an intense (by comparison) heavy rock section. Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond’s bass line walks and bops through the arrangement, with stabs of electric guitar and organ alternate with strings and horns; sadly, 1970’s rock production values lend these voicings a slightly weaker sound than might have been achieved later. This does little to decrease the intensity the rich, thick arrangements develop...an intensity that is only increased by rapid-fire shifts from full augmented band and moments of solo strummed acoustic guitar.

The band breaks down with a held chord, leading into a simple two note bass line and the return of Anderson’s flute, in a slower, dirge like section. The track continues instrumentally for a few minutes before shifting into a second third vocal theme, dominated by Evans’ organ playing and a cold, almost detached vocal delivery from Anderson. While not as heavy, this section reminds in some ways of the intensity of “Hymn 43” from Aqualung, offering every bit as much cynicism and vitriol as the later, here directed at society at large rather than religion in specific. Martin Barre’s guitar solo squonks and squawks, alternating between bursts of single notes and chopped, wah-effected chords. Add in harmonized guitar lines and a band arrangement teetering on chaos, and you have Jethro Tull exploring some decidedly non-song structure oriented areas in a manner unlike any they’d attempted before.

Anderson’s lyrics are incredibly visual and literary, alternating between the obtuse and the visceral, playing contrast for all its worth. As much as the song’s arrangement utilises a great deal of variation and iteration of theme, Anderson’s lyrics explore similar stylistic territory. Where one verse deals with earthy, country elements (cattle quietly grazing, rivers flowing to the sea), the next will be concerned with an upper class gentleman come to “mend (their) broken ways.” In many ways, Anderson’s lyrics during this phase of Tull’s career were very much concerned with tweaking society, and as the band would move further toward the more traditional British folk sound, so would his lyrics, extolling the virtues of a more rustic, earthy life.

Sixteen minutes into side one, we have a nearly full return to the initial musical themes that opened the album, duplicated on guitar and xylophone, with Evans’ piano bouncing along the top. It shifts through a number of variations, as the band moves on, re-exploring a number of musical motifs that had, to this point, made up the majority of the composition. Anderson’s lyrics take on a bit of a cynically innocent tone, with his requests for superheroes to rise up from the pages of their comic books to save the day.

Side one fades out on some heavily distorted organ and staccato stabs of guitar, bass and drums, phased and panning from channel to channel, eventually de-evolving into distorted electronic static and noise.

Side two of Thick as a Brick opens, appropriately enough, in a rising wash of distorted electronic noise, along with a slightly renaissance-inflected motif. Staccato stabs of piano and squawking guitar rise forth from the noise, exploding in a reiteration of the “man is born” lyrical and musical themes. The material is played with greater urgency and speed this time around, with a fast drum solo accompanying by flute breaking things down, as a number of brief instrumental sections are pasted, hodge podge style, in a collage manner. A scant 4 minutes into the second side, one might be concerned that the band is losing the plot somewhat, unable to carry on the lengthy composition that it has thus far excelled in.

A moment’s silence and we are back in folk territory, with another variation on the initial melodic theme. Anderson’s vocals are multitracked here, often harmonising at the ends of verses. Any concern that the composition would weaken during its second half are likely banished at this point, as the band takes on a slightly more baroque, sacred sound. The music is simpler, less orchestrated, and yet it provides more than its share of true goosebump moments. “Do you believe in the day,” Ian Anderson asks us, and one can’t help but reply in the affirmative, as harpsichord, and acoustic guitar create a melancholy backing for Anderson’s plaintive, pleading voice. A second iteration of this theme builds with electric instrumentation replacing the more acoustic, baroque sound, yet the emotional intensity is palpable, almost physical in its visceral response.

The next section moves on with fairly straightforward electric Tull arrangement, heavily based on Evans’ organ, piano and (on occasion) harpsichord contributions. Anderson’s flute work takes center stage as the band chugs along under him. Lest one think this would be a four to the floor movement, the arrangement allows for enough shift in time and tempo to make even the most jaded listener flush with excitement. Anderson makes some interesting choices in terms of holding certain syllables longer while chopping others off, creating a strange cadence and delivery to the lyrics, layering on yet more complexity. We revisit a number of lyrical themes (the superheroes, the wise men and fools), building toward a final iteration of the main musical themes.

The original acoustic guitar theme is played one final time, gradually slowing down as Anderson strums the final chords and sings the final words. The song ends on Anderson’s solo voice, cracked and slightly emotional in delivery.

Stylistically, Thick as a Brick is one of the band’s most complex pieces. Compositionally, the piece featured extensive tempo and time changes wrapped around a series of repeated and revisited musical themes and variations. The additional instrumental voicing explored by the band on this work gives the album the feel of a chamber piece as much as a rock song. The three to four minute edits released by the record company to promote the album on radio would do little to present the breadth and scope of this piece, relying on individual sections without the added context of the material around it. This is an album that must be listened to in one continuous session; anything less lessens the impact of this epic to end all epics.

Track Listing:
1. "Thick as a Brick, Part I" 22:40
2. "Thick as a Brick, Part II" 21:10

Ian Anderson – lead vocals, acoustic guitar, flute, violin, trumpet
Martin Barre – electric guitar, lute
John Evan – piano, organ, harpsichord
Jeffrey Hammond (as "Jeffrey Hammond-Hammond"): Bass guitar, Vocals
Barriemore Barlow – drums, percussion, timpani
Dee Palmer – Brass and string arrangements


Mark C said...

Not to nitpick (well, maybe to nitpick), but the *man* credited with brass and string arrangements was DAVID Palmer (at least that's what it reads in my copy of the album). The "woman" that is now known as Dee Palmer did not come into existence until long after any relevance to Jethro Tull.
And yes, I know you're well aware of this, that's why it's nitpicking. :-)
After all, it was Anaquin Skywalker, not Darth Vader that won the pod race in Phantom Menace. :-)

Bill K. said...

Using your analogy...

Darth Vader was ALWAYS Anakin Skywalker.
David Palmer was ALWAYS Dee Palmer.

I understand what you are saying...but also note that Wendy Carlos, as a great and perhaps more appropriate example, had the credits on all her albums from 1965-1975 corrected.

Anonymous said...

A few questions from the first three paragraphs only:
1. I cannot figure out the meaning of the hidden word "g__r" if you can say it here;
2. Why did Jeffery Hammond add another -Hammond to his name?;
3. Was Ian's / Gerald's 'Aqualung' a made-up name or a man who could hold water in his lungs? And is Gerald Bostock Ian's real name?