Friday, August 1, 2014

MUSIC REVIEW OF THE DAY: JETHRO TULL - A PASSION PLAY/AN EXTENDED PERFORMANCE

It was a bit of disaster, to say the least.  And that's saying a lot for an album that went to #1.  But Jethro Tull's 1973 work did kill much of the momentum the group had built with the hits Aqualung and Thick As A Brick, especially in the U.S. and Canada.  The former blues group from England had become one of the very top touring and recording acts, on par with The Stones and The Who and Elton in those days.  That big, so yes, A Passion Play really did knock them down a couple of pegs.  Now reissued with an entire 60 minutes of bonus music from the time, and glorious 5.1 remixes on DVD, will the reputation finally be restored? Nope, it still is pretty dull, especially as the follow-up to Brick.  Seems we were right back then.  It's a much more interesting story now though.

Tull leader Ian Anderson had certainly been happy with the reaction to Thick As A Brick, with its conceptual form, fabulous phony newspaper album jacket, and mix of grandeur and humour.  Concepts were the way, for now, and he was going to do another one. Supremely confident in his own writing abilities and the group's chemistry, they all left for the famous French studio Chateau D'Herouville, known as Honky Chateau, thanks to Elton's recent album.  Bad move, they hated it, the food sickened them, the lodgings were gross and the recording gear kept breaking down.  The plan was to do a double album of cuts that Anderson was writing, but after three sides were somewhat complete, they abandoned ship, convinced it was crap.  That left them nine days to record the album in England before the next tour began.  Instead of salvaging what they could, Anderson made the decision to scrap it all, count it as lessons learned, and come up with a new concept. Eek.

The French sessions then became the stuff of Tull lore, and have come out in dribs and drabs over the years, usually referred to as the Chateau D'Isaster tracks.  On this set, we get the complete set, without the later overdubs Anderson added, and a bit that had been shuffled and lost before.  Disaster?  Actually, not bad really, especially when you find out that they include the lovely Skating Away On Thin Ice Of A New Day that showed up in the next year's War Child album, as well as the song Only Solitaire.  The concept had something to do with man, God, and finding analogies in the animal kingdom.  Those animal bits included Law Of The Bungle, which morphed at some point into Bungle In the Jungle.  It's unfinished for sure, but it feels like it could have been pretty good if given time for more work.

The choice to start over now seems like a huge mistake.  Famously panned on release, eager fans still bought it, a testament to their love of the group, but most did not forgive them.  I've looked at thousands of record collections over the years, and any with Tull albums almost always have Aqualung, Brick, maybe an earlier one, and that's it.  If they had A Passion Play at the time, they dumped in at the used store or didn't bother to bring it when they moved out of the dorm room.  It is plodding, confusing, and the lyrics are thick, thick as..you know.  Anderson's hastily-chosen concept now had to do with what happens when we die, that it's not just heaven or hell, but a continuation of decisions of good or evil.  Not that you can understand that from the single listen most people gave it. A desire for prog-rock complexity also made the music difficult at times, and most noticeably, Anderson decided to play a lot of soprano sax as well as flute.  The band does stretch out at times, and there are musical moments that pop up and give you hope for a few seconds, but then it's back to the grind.

Isn't it ironic that the real reason to get this set is for the Chateau D'Isaster album?  With all their complaints about the studio, the gear, the crew, the food and the sanitary conditions, it makes you wonder how others, such as Elton and Cat Stevens managed to survive the place.  All the band members agree it was an awful experience, but chucking the whole album?  It was good enough to form the basis of War Child just months later. Anyway, as I say, it all makes a better story now.

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