I love the jaunty, lighter side of Jethro Tull. One of the reasons I started listening to Tull was that acoustic side. It’s unique among rock bands. They could still be pompous, but in a fun kind of way. The critics called it “folk rock”, but that is misleading. It’s much more complicated than that. Songs From the Wood might be considered the epitome of this kind of Tull music. It was also the first for keyboardist David Palmer as an official member of the band, and perhaps that has something to do with the direction of the album.
The title track begins things immediately with this type of soft playful Tull song. A multi-layered Ian Anderson sings harmonies with himself, and then the band come in backing him with gleeful but complex music. Palmer’s synthesizer is immediately obvious, as he doubles down with John Evan, also on keys. Certainly Barriemore Barlow has to be one of the most underrated drummers in rock, and his work here is as excellent as it is difficult.
Ian plays all the instruments himself on personal favourite “Jack-in-the-Green”. This character from old English folklore is usually associated with the coming of spring, and the music is appropriate for that kind of imagery. This kind of song was in part inspired by the countryside that Ian had relocated to. While there he read a book on folklore, and that made its way into the music. It’s hard not to like “Jack-in-the-Green”, unless you’re just a Grinch. “Cup of Wonder” is brilliant, a celebration with orchestration and bright melodies.
“Hunting Girl” is the first song that delivers a big heavy riff (thank you Martin Barre). The song has a gallop to it, as if you are riding horseback with the Hunting Girl herself. Martin’s guitar solo is a delight, a brief moment of rock genius. Up next is a song that was re-recorded many years later for The Jethro Tull Christmas Album: “Ring Out Solstice Bells”. It doesn’t feel at all out of place on Songs From the Wood. It fits the direction and lyrical concept of other songs, with the solstice theme. Barrie Barlow’s drums on the outro are something else!
Side two of the album opened with “Velvet Green”, a very percussive song. Of the tracks thus far, it is the least instantaneous. It’s one of the longest track at six minutes, and has a very progressive bent. “The Whistler” on the other hand is pretty instant. I used to mis-hear the lyrics. I thought Ian was singing, “I have a pipe, and I’ve come to play.” I prefer my words to the actual ones, “I have a fife and a drum to play.” This brilliant little song is about as bright and jaunty as Tull get. “Pibroch (Cap in Hand)” gives Martin Barre a chance to make a lot of cool noises…weirdly Kiss-like, actually. “Pibroch” is a long bomber (8:35) and a bit too long at that, but the moments of brilliance shine through, as always. Especially enjoyable are the quaint “Dr. Who” sounding keyboards near the end. Just great stuff. The closer is “Fire at Midnight”, a title that Blackmore seems to have ripped off for his Fires at Midnight album. It is a brief mostly-acoustic number that returns to the bright spring-like sound that commenced the album.
The Jethro Tull remaster series has been excellent. Songs From the Wood only has two bonus tracks, which is a darn shame. “Beltane” shares lyrical themes with other songs on the album. I don’t know if it’s a B-side or what have you, but it’s clearly from these sessions. It boasts some of Ian’s best flute work on the disc. It’s of excellent quality, a worthy bonus track for a great album. The other extra is a live version of “Velvet Green”, every bit as complex as its studio counterpart. It’s a bit more lively, perhaps.
People who like Tull would probably love this album because it emphasizes a lot of traits that are unique about Jethro Tull. Those who hate “folk rock” or progressive rock, or whatever else Tull gets pigeonholed as (classic rock?*) should keep their distance from Songs From the Wood.
* Hey, they won a Grammy as a “heavy metal” band.