Album review: JETHRO TULL – The String Quartets (Ian Anderson)

Pete Feenstra chatted to Ian Anderson for his Feature show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio and played tracks from the new album.  First broadcast 12 March 2017.

JETHRO TULL - The String Quartets

BMG Rights Management [Release date 24.03.17]

‘Jethro Tull: The String Quartets’ is in fact Ian Anderson plus The Carducci Quartet on an album orchestrated by Anderson’s long time collaborator John O’Hara. The result is a refreshing interpretation of some of Tull’s back catalogue, leaving the fans to argue about what was left out.

This is the kind of album that asks some awkward questions about whether a rock audience has now matured to the point where it can appreciate chamber music renditions of a band whose musical career spans folk, prog and heavy rock. Also how many versions of these songs do fans still want to hear?

Whatever the answer, there’s plenty to enjoy here, as O’Hara sets about Anderson’s material with gusto. The quartet’s subtle dynamics pick out the musical highlights, before they explore the outer fringes of the material. In the case of ‘We Used To Bach’ (aka ‘We Used To Know’) Anderson’s song is cleverly segued with the original influence for the song, ‘Bach Prelude C Major’.

Tull’s music has already been through the classical blender before of course, but this string quartet album brings a lively, jaunty presence to bear on a thoughtfully compiled set of songs, albeit it includes two Christmas songs.

The key to the project is the strength of the material. String quartets were after all considered to be the ultimate test for a composer’s art and for the most part the songs  benefit from the ‘unplugged’ approach. ‘Bungle’ (aka ‘Bungle In The Jungle’) for example, is given a more accessible lighter feel, in sharp contrast to rather more lumbering original, and ‘Ring Out Those Bells’ (aka ‘Ring Out Solstice Bells’) has a joyous feel as Ian adds one of 6 passable vocals on the album.

Then there’s the strange choice of ‘Pass The Bottle’, a wry seasonal ditty which retains the Eastern sounding mandolin, while adding a busy string arrangement that helps builds it up impressively. Anderson voices the original outro with a distinctly southern vowel sound compared to the more flat original: ‘hey Santa pass us that bottle will ya”

Recorded at Worcester Cathedral and St. Kenelms’s Church in Sapperton, Gloucestershire, the album gets off to a brave start with the Tull classic, ‘Living In The Past’.  Retitled ‘In The Past’, the 12 different titles reflect the different musical approaches and different players from the original band.

‘In The Past’ opens with a gently thumbed strings and Anderson’s flute which deftly meanders in between the strings as the quartet works its way back to the theme.

‘Sossity Waiting’ (‘Sossity, You’re A Woman/Reasons For Waiting’) doesn’t quite work as well, if only because it’s a segued piece on which the original acoustic number is well suited to the string arrangement. The latter was was already orchestrated and even though it’s beautifully voiced here, the quartet arrangement doesn’t really add anything to the original, though it does serve to remind us you of the potency of Anderson’s melodies.

The folky material seems better fitted to purpose, most notably on the uplifting feel of ‘Songs And Horses’ (aka ‘Songs From The Wood/Heavy Horses’), one of only two tracks to feature the quartet on their own. The staccato nature of the song and the melodic resolution is beautifully captured by purity of the strings on a piece full of subtle dynamics.

The link piece ‘Only The Giving’ (aka ‘Wond’ring Aloud’) stays much closer to the original acoustic arrangement, until a startling violin drop-in at 35 seconds, before the strings recover to colour the piece with intricate bowed strings.

Die hard fans will want to hear what has been made of the two Tull heavy hitters, ‘Loco, (‘Locomotive Breath’) and ‘Aquafugue’ (‘Aqualung’). ‘Loco’ is a highlight, particularly as Ian’s excellent flute is offset by the strings as they map out the melody line.

‘Aquafugue’ is given a more sonorous reading with the repeated riff punctuating a sombre claustrophobic sounding piece, before a spirited unison of strings and a belated vocal (the least impressive on the album).

The flute and string double lines nearly obscure Anderson’s vocal, while the Celeste sounds a bit heavy handed, almost as if trying to mirror the bombast of the original version.

Given that it’s the last song on the album it’s a slightly low key finish to an otherwise enjoyable album, which for all its endeavour and sense of adventure will probably be for completists only.  ****

Review by Pete Feenstra

Pete Feenstra presents his Rock & Blues Show on Get Ready to ROCK! Radio every Tuesday at 19:00 GMT, and “The Pete Feenstra Feature” on Sundays at 20:00

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UK Blues Broadcaster of the Year (2020) Pete Feenstra presents his weekly Rock & Blues Show on Tuesday at 19:00 ( BST, GMT+1) as part of a five hour blues rock marathon “Tuesday is Bluesday at GRTR!”. The show is repeated on Wednesdays at 22:00, Fridays at 20:00). This show was first broadcast 26 January 2021.

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