Sunday, April 22, 2012

Thick as a Brick 2 (TAAB 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock?) - Or, the Dangers Inherent in What-Ifs, Maybes, and Might-Have-Beens, an Album Review

Ian Anderson’s Thick as a Brick 2 (alternatively titled TAAB 2: Whatever Happened to Gerald Bostock? or simply TAAB2) is an album of surfaces. On the surface, TAAB2 is a recapitulation of Jethro Tull’s 1972 progressive rock masterpiece Thick as a Brick. On the surface, Ian Anderson and a band of hired hands try to recapture the musically adventurous and audacious Jethro Tull original recording. On the surface, Gerald Bostock, the main character of the tale, relives his half-century on earth through song and spoken-word poetry, Ian Anderson tries to relive his glory days as eccentric rock star, and we as listeners, ever yearning for what we can’t have, try to relive a revolutionary period of history where music really did make a difference – on the surface. You can never really go back, but the desultory reverie is still comforting in our muddled, work-a-day minds. On the surface, the song “What-ifs, Maybes, and Might-Have-Beens” may well be a more apt title for this project and this review. The question remains if there is anything of worth beneath the surface. I would say the answer is yes, but this affirmative is not absolute, and comes with several qualifiers.

The danger here, of course, is having the audacity to call a project "Thick as a Brick 2". Ian Anderson and Jethro Tull were audacious enough to present a single song stretched over two sides of a piece of vinyl and call it Thick as a Brick. They were even more audacious by repeating the process with A Passion Play a year later in 1973. But such audacity was rewarded, as both albums hit #1 in the U.S., an unheard of feat for albums without a hit single, even in the heyday of progressive rock. One could question the 64-year-old Ian Anderson’s motives for recording TAAB2, and a cynic may well consider this effort as one last crass attempt to cash in – as if the immensely wealthy Anderson needed to pad his voluminous retirement coffers - but this concern has been hurled at Anderson previously, most often regarding the ludicrous amount of Jethro Tull remasters, repackagings, anthologies, live recordings, and greatest hits albums he has inundated the market with over the years.

But Ian Anderson has always done whatever the hell he wanted, and it is that “fuck you” mentality that has endeared him and his band Jethro Tull to his intensely loyal fans and enraged the rock-critic establishment (themselves often personifications of the term “thick as a brick”), who attacked Tull quite unmercifully, resulting in a hostile war of invective between Anderson and the critics for much of the 1970s. Anderson himself states on

“It was a little daunting to consider the impact – or perhaps lack of – which this release might have on old and new fans alike but I eventually decided that I would embark on this for my own benefit and enjoyment rather than trying to please anyone else at all…Ah, well – you can always go and watch The X Factor and the Eurovision Song Contest.”

So, let’s take Ian at his word that TAAB2 is just another eclectic piece of stubborn individualism and not a bit of self-serving promotion. In either case, one confronts the daunting specter of comparison between the epic original and the fledgling newcomer. In this, I believe Mr. Anderson does this release a real and glaring disservice, particularly to the musicians who recorded the album with him and to the music itself. To follow-up a momentous and revered masterpiece with an appendage in afterthought literally invites disappointment and overly critical contrasting. To put it bluntly, TAAB2 is not as good as Thick as Brick – how could it be? In context, Thick as a Brick is one of those albums that is forever memorialized as a pivotal piece of rock history - like In the Court of the Crimson King, Close to the Edge or Selling England by the Pound – the standard by which all progressive rock albums are measured. And you want to do a sequel? WTF!

Thick as a Brick was, ostensibly, a single song composed around a “prize-winning” epic poem by the mythical Milton Bostock, an 8-year-old child prodigy whose scandal-ridden youth was reported in a wonderful spoof of a local newspaper, The St. Cleve Chronicle, as part of the cover art of the album itself (one of the finest examples of album cover art in the 1970s). On TAAB2, we find Gerald Bostock at age 50, contemplating his mortality and reviewing the rather sordid samplings of his life history. The differences between the two albums are stark. On Thick as a Brick, incidences of Gerald’s life are wittily recounted in the newspaper album cover, but the poem/lyrics themselves tell an allusive tale with clever wordplay of growing up in post-WWII Britain; whereas, in TAAB2 the songs themselves recount Gerald’s story. The music on Thick as a Brick is an organic flow of musical moods and themes in ever-changing time signatures and tempos without stops – a near-continuous piece of music; while TAAB2 is a broken mosaic of different musical styles and traditionally separated songs with the lyrics as the only unifying theme (and the concept of the album).

If one removes the many direct references to the original album (which are welcome, of course, because Thick as a Brick is always a worthwhile listen), then what is most noticeable is that TAAB2 owes less to Thick as a Brick and more to the Ian Anderson 2002 solo album Rupi’s Dance. In fact, you could have titled this release Rupi2, and no one would have noticed the difference. For context, give a critical listen to “Lost in Crowds”, “A Raft of Penguins”, "Pigeon Flying Over Berlin Zoo", “A Hand of Thumbs”, or “A Week of Moments” from Rupi’s Dance and you’ll understand my consternation. It’s not that I dislike Rupi’s Dance, on the contrary, it is a fine Ian Anderson solo album; however, it is an Anderson solo album and not a Jethro Tull album, just as TAAB2 is an Ian solo effort and not a Tull release. Am I splitting hairs here? I do not think so, and thus my main disconnect with TAAB2.

To put things in the proper perspective, I would merely point to another great rock performer, Alice Cooper, a direct contemporary of Jethro Tull in the 1970s. At the same time Tull released landmark albums like Aqualung, Thick as Brick, Minstrel in the Gallery and Songs from the Wood, Alice Cooper (meaning in this case a great, cohesive band) released superb rock albums such as Love It to Death, Killer, School’s Out and Billion Dollar Babies. Then Alice Cooper (meaning now the individual performer who changed his name and dropped his band) went on to become a mockery of himself, failing to repeat the success he had in large part to his bandmates Glenn Buxton, Michael Bruce, Dennis Dunaway and Neil Smith. Likewise, Ian Anderson, who has always been the principal songwriter and driving force behind Jethro Tull - an authoritarian figure who has been known to go through musicians like a baby goes through diapers - tries to recreate the mystique of an album that, whatever Mr. Anderson considers to the contrary, was a remarkable effort by a band of incredibly talented individuals that were with him through most of Tull’s greatest successes. Again, like it or not, when you loudly proclaim that you are making a sequel to a great album, this leads to the inevitable comparisons of one band to another.

The musicians on TAAB2 are evidently very accomplished (or else Ian Anderson, perfectionist that he is, would have nothing to do with them), but it is obvious that they are following cues here, and that TAAB2 is indeed a solo album. In comparison, Thick as a Brick was an ensemble effort, with long musical passages wherein band members trade fiery salvos at a breathless pace. There was a fire in Thick as a Brick that cannot be found in TAAB2. From a compositional theory standpoint, I suppose one could say that there is a fundamental difference between the explosive passion of youth and the banked embers of middle age, which match the child prodigy and the stodgy 50-year-old; but let’s be honest, we don’t necessarily make philosophical differentiations between two albums, we compare the music and musicians.

Guitarist Florian Opahle spends most of the album copying Martin Barre licks. Opahle, although gifted, never gains his own “voice”, so to speak, and one is constantly reminded of Martin’s absence (he had been on all Jethro Tull albums since 1968). Because of all the musical reminders - every last distinctive guitar inflection and monster riff - we recall Barre’s immense input in the making of Tull compositions. Elsewhere, keyboardist John O’Hara in no way matches the classical piano runs and ferocious Hammond organ of John Evan, and the reliance on accordion on many tracks (that foul instrument Tull fans derisively refer to as “the squeezy thing”) in no way perpetuates Evan’s fluent keyboards or the magnificent strings and horns David (Dee) Palmer arranged on Thick as Brick. And let’s not even get into the differences between the thrilling and inventive drumming of Barriemore Barlow (who Led Zep’s John Bonham once called "the greatest rock drummer England ever produced") to the fellow on TAAB2 who keeps a beat like a metronome. You could have borrowed a drum machine from the Under Wraps sessions for all that. That there are no band members from the original album to mark the passing of years and offer continuity is perhaps the greatest mistake Ian Anderson made: this is an approximation of Jethro Tull, but it aint “Tull”.

If one divorces oneself from the premise (a big “if” in my estimation), TAAB2 is a very good Ian Anderson solo album. Naturally, there is always the regret over Anderson’s severe throat problems, which constrain his once powerful vocals and leave him nasally and straining. But he overcomes this handicap better here than on many of his previous albums. The spoken word bits are a hit and miss proposition. The poem “Might-Have-Beens” has Ian doing his best Ronald Colman impersonation (see Colman as the medieval poet François Villon in the 1938 film If I Were King), but it is terribly annoying on “Give Till It Hurts” (with Anderson using a dreadful evangelical American accent).

Yet the brief acoustic passage that precedes the bible-thumping infomercial babble on “Give Till It Hurts” is the album’s finest example of Ian’s underappreciated abilities on acoustic guitar (and it is regrettably far too short). Elsewhere, we learn that Gerald Bostock got felt up in school by a pedophilic teacher on "Swing It Far", followed by the two best compositions on the album “Adrift and Dumbfounded” and “Old School Song” which, oddly enough, is a song that best adheres to the spirit of Thick as a Brick, containing almost continuous inferences to the original. The band really seems to gel by the end of the album with their most cohesive efforts musically “Kismet in Suburbia” and "What-ifs, Maybes and Might-Have-Beens", and TAAB2 ends with a nostalgic reprise of the final acoustic passage of Thick as a Brick, which Anderson ruins when he sings the last line as “…and your wise men don’t know how it feels, to be thick as a brick – TWO!” (as if it was necessary to remind us, Ian).

I have heard other reviews gushing over the album’s return to a “1970’s sound”; unfortunately, I don’t hear it. Producer Steve Wilson (of the prog-rock band Porcupine Tree) does not give the album the warm ambience of 70s vinyl, it has that digitally sequenced sound that leaves me cold, with keyboards that are lifeless, and flat, mechanical drums. And as I mentioned previously, it doesn’t help matters that TAAB2 has only passing references to the original instruments and equipment used. There was no “squeezy thing” on the original, and it doesn’t belong here: more Hammond organ, less squeezy thing, please. Oh, and Ian, you could have at least given Dee Palmer a call for some much needed string arrangements!

But I digress. We are often most critical of that which we love most, and I have been an ardent fan of Tull since the early 70s. On the surface, and if I compare apples to apples, I can only rate this release two and ½ or perhaps three stars if I’m feeling charitable (on a five star scale, which is what I have rated the original Thick as a Brick). But there is more lurking beneath the surface here, isn’t there? And really, if we look at this album as a release in 2012 and forget its regrettable ties to a masterpiece by Jethro Tull, then it is goddamn good in comparison to the crap that passes for music these days. Therefore, I have to say this is the best solo album Ian Anderson has ever made, and I give it four stars (music, like the economy, is prone to inflation), even with the “what-ifs, maybes and might-have-beens” that mar the surface.

To discuss all things "Tull", please go to the JETHRO TULL BOARD.

To discuss this TAAB2 review or to add a review of your own, please go here: OFFICIAL TAAB2 REVIEW @ THE JETHRO TULL BOARD.

1 comment:

Audentity said...

Very well-written review. Yeah, there are lots of problems with this album (many detailed by you). I agree with your conclusion though: this is the best Ian solo album.

His proclivity for near-spoken "singing" the last 15 years really bugs me. Ian also developed a bad habit of putting too many syllables in a bar, necessitating a rushed delivery of the words. Why, oh why Ian?