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Published: 2003/12/29
by Mike Greenhaus

The Jethro Tull Christmas Album – Jethro TullRupi’s Dance – Ian Anderson

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Jethro Tull is a bankable brand name. So it’s not surprising that two
releases falling just on the fringe of the prog-rockers’ official canon
found their way into Christmas stockings this holiday season. It
might be easy to dismiss Ian Anderson’s two most recent projects as Grandmother
gifts: semi-essential releases used as filler between proper Tull albums.
However, neither The Jethro Tull Christmas Album, nor Anderson’s solo
Rupi’s Dance, can justifiably be described as novelty albums. Instead,
they allow longtime Jethro Tull fans insight into Anderson’s creative
psyche, by watching him produce two like-minded, but unique, releases.
Since Anderson acts as both Jethro Tull’s main creative voice and lead
instrumentalist, it’s hard to separate his persona from Jethro Tull as a
full band entity. That said, Rupi’s Dance does provide an interesting
insight into the flutist’s creative voice. Backed by a changing cast of
characters, including current Tull keyboardist Andrew Giddngs, Anderson is
the sole musician who appears on all of the tracks. Thus, unlike a classic
Tull album, Anderson not only creates the blueprint, he lays its concrete
himself. Playing a variety of woodwind, acoustic guitars, and various other
musical toys, Anderson successfully stretches beyond the flute as his main
creative output. As a guitarist, Anderson emulates his flute style, mixing
medieval mysticism and dark progressive rock. While Anderson’s early Jethro
Tull electric guitar experiments adhered ’60s blues-rock in structure, his
current sound is more gentle and pronounced, similar to 1600’s folk minstrel

Like many of Jethro Tull’s releases, Anderson also mixes in string
orchestration, adding emotional weight to buffed-up numbers like "Raft of
Penguins" and "Pigeon Flying Over Berlin Zoo." While one can argue that this
lush treatment simply masks each song’s slim structure, Anderson’s use of
strings also helps emphasize his work’s baroque underbelly. Yet. without
Jethro Tull’s electric guitars and arena rock drumming, Rupi’s Dance
takes on an acoustic, introspective feel, characteristic of an MTV Unplugged
performance. Though Anderson opts not to talk during the album, his lyrics
are some of his most his most revealing. During "Rupi’s Dance" Anderson
admits, "I get lost in crowds," referring to his long battle with stage
fright and, on "Old Black Cat," the former "rock star villai" offers a
fragile eulogy for his deceased pet.

During the 1990s, Anderson also embraced the flute’s Eastern origins, adding
flutes from around the world into his onstage arsenal. While Anderson let
these Eastern tendencies lead his 1995 solo album, Divinities: Twelve
Dances with God, he prefers a less pronounced layered approach in this
stripped down setting. Anderson never lets his eclecticism run free,
emphasizing each number but never overcoming tracks like "Calendar Shade
(The Cappuccino Song)" and "Pigeon Flying over Berlin Zoo." A healthy
addition to his patented sound, Anderson’s Eastern influences give his
classical sounds a decisively modern twist.
Not surprisingly, the full band Jethro Tull Christmas Album adopts a
similar feel and sound to Rupi’s Dance. Recorded simultaneously, the
albums seem divided thematically by Anderson, opting to include darker, more
winter oriented songs on The Jethro Tull Christmas Album and lighter,
more introspective numbers on his own solo release. It’s not surprising that
The Jethro Tull Christmas Album could double as the soundtrack for
A Nightmare Before Christmas. Oddly enough, focusing his work on a
specific holiday has helped Anderson create one of the most cohesive
latter-day Jethro Tull albums, giving the disc a spooky aura missing from
scattershot 1990s releases like JethroTull.Com. Admittedly, part of
the album’s strength is its re-recorded versions of Jethro Tull classics
"Fire at Midnight," "Ring out Solstice Bells," and "Weathercock " from solid
albums like Songs from the Wood and Heavy Horses. Taking
Songs from the Wood’s folk minimalism and interjecting it with subtle
electric instruments, Jethro Tull is able to mix its trademark showmanship
with the artistic edge the group has always desired.

Perhaps the biggest difference between an Ian Anderson album and a Jethro
Tull album is the inclusion of Martin Barre, the group’s longtime guitarist.
Playing both electric and acoustic axes, Barre makes with mark throughout
The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. Barre’s bluesy electric guitar also
gives the album a harsher, more intimidating texture than the welcoming
Rupi’s Dance. Compared to early Jethro Tull releases, Anderson’s
wailing instrumentals are toned down, but Barre’s musical voice is
emphasized more than any instrumentalist on Rupi’s Dance. The
guitarist’s instrumental composition, "A Winter Snowscape" is also a nice
break from Anderson’s songwriting, proving that Jethro Tull is more than a
showcase for Anderson’s work.
In addition to enjoyable, but unessential, Anderson holiday originals like
"First Snow in Brooklyn" and "Jack Frost in the Hooded Crow," The Jethro
Tull Christmas Album’s main artistic offering is its wide array of
Yuletide covers. An Anderson arrangement of Bach’s "Bour#34; fits
particularly well given the flutist’s love of Renaissance era mysticism. The
instrumentals "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" and "Greensleeves" also help
give the album a sense thematic unity. Given the holiday season’s connection
with the medieval era, Jethro Tull is one band that might benefit from a
Christmas disc, instead of being embarrassed by such a release. Anderson’s
own "A Christmas Song," the album’s thematic center and inspirational
springboard, is also an example of holiday songs that don’t have to be
throwaways. Perhaps, The Jethro Tull Christmas Album isn’t exactly a
tree-trimming soundtrack, but it gives fans hope that Jethro Tull’s creative
peak isn’t completely over.

Ian Anderson is one of rock music’s most recognizable figures. So it’s
refreshing that both of his current projects are subtle twists on his famous
sound. Unlike the synthesizer heavy work he flirted with in the 1980s,
Rupi’s Dance never sounds like Anderson trying to break away from
Jethro Tull. In fact, "A Birthday Card at Christmas," from The Jethro
Tull Christmas Album is offered as bonus track on the disc. Similarly,
Anderson implants the acoustic textures that characterized his solo release
on The Jethro Tull Christmas Album. So it seems that Anderson wisely
divided his songs by theme and lyrical style, aiming for two discs that can
speak freely for themselves. Sure Anderson is mellowing with age, but he is
also focusing his songwriting to match his performance ability. Though
neither album contains any songs as strong as "Aqualong," Jethro Tull aren’t
a novelty act just yet.

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