Sunday, November 1, 2015

Jethro Tull - Thick As A Brick (1972)

Gerald Bostock, where are you now?
One way to hook me on a record is to give it some overwrought, ambitious concept. And indeed, there was a time when concept albums were not only popular but an absolute plague in rock music: The early 1970's, when bands like Yes and King Crimson were cranking out ambitious songs of ridiculous length with aimless solos and gratuitous key changes. In 1971, the same year Emerson, Lake and Palmer released a 20 minute song about an armadillo tank, Jethro Tull made their commercial breakthrough with the album Aqualung.

Now Jethro Tull were not really part of the progressive rock scene. They were a spunky little blues-rock band known for having a bitchin' flute player and sounding very, very English. But the songs on Aqualung contained some recurring characters and themes, so much to the band's chagrin it was immediately dubbed a concept album. Finding themselves suddenly called progressive and compared to bands they didn't see eye-to-eye with, the boys in Tull decided to have a little fun.

The result was 1972's mammoth hit record Thick as a Brick, a parody of a genre already silly enough that a lot of people didn't get the joke. It wasn't just a concept album, it was a single "song" split over two sides of a record. A fake newspaper packaged with the record claimed that the lyrics were a poem written by a troubled 8-year-old boy named Gerald Bostock, and that Jethro Tull merely set them to music. In truth the album was the product of endless jam sessions and improvisation, the best parts stitched together into an thrilling epic that barely takes a breath in 40 minutes.

Despite being a joke, Thick as a Brick has ironically aged much better than most of its brethren. One reason is that the overall piece has no real structure, but is just a bunch of little snippets tacked together with enough repeating elements that it sounds like there's a master plan. This leads to a feeling that the record could indeed go anywhere from one moment to the next. Yet the individual pieces are catchy enough that, with a little work, it could have been a nice conventional little pop album.

Yet the concept isn't the only thing setting this record apart in Tull's discography (and they've got quite a rich one). The band had never before sounded this unified, whereas before the electric and acoustic elements could sound like two bands colliding. And the production was crisp, colorful and perfect, miles beyond the terribly muddy sound of Aqualung. It sounds great even by today's standards (hell, you rarely find records with this good of a dynamic range now, but that's another rant).

And all of that nerdery aside, you can't beat the fun, rollicking songwriting, with so many asides and left turns that it rarely registers that you're listening to a 40 minutes song. That is, except when the band wants you to: one of the funniest moments is near the beginning of side 2, where the band seems to repeatedly lose interest and trail off, finally playing the first few bars of the song again, just to see if you're still paying attention. “Progressive Rock” is virtually never this fun, and while Tull have made several great records (Benefit is another desert island pick), if you only ever hear one, it should be Thick as a Brick.

Check out more great records in The Gallery

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