ALBUM REVIEW: ‘Jethro Tull – The String Quartets’

The orchestral reimagining of rock records isn’t new. Two years ago, REBEAT took at look at Pete Townshend’s collaboration with Alfie Boe and the London Philharmonic Orchestra on Pete Townshend’s Classic Quadrophenia. A rock opera, after all, seems a perfect candidate for a classical retelling, and indeed, it worked well.

This year, we bring you another reinvention which makes perfect sense to anyone who’s a fan. This week, The End Records/BMG bring us a collaboration between Ian Anderson and the Carducci Quartet, Jethro Tull – The String Quartets.

Anyone familiar with the Jethro Tull sound is well aware that the band’s music already leans towards the classical, often venturing into the territory of English folk, evoking images of old-fashioned troubadours and madrigals. The fact that frontman Ian Anderson made the band unique and notable with his “lead flute” screams classical and, like many “classic rock”-era bands, they frequently featured string instruments on their records. It is, therefore, fitting that these compositions be altered to fit the apparently more sophisticated classical genre.

This album features mostly instrumental versions of hit Jethro Tull tracks (and a few lesser known songs), renamed only slightly to retain some familiarity to the original tracks. To be fair, the tracks are nearly impossible to make unfamiliar, even without electric guitars and percussion. The only addition to the quartet on these tracks is Anderson’s trademark flute playing and occasionally his vocals.

Most of the tracks lend themselves extremely well to this interpretation. The first track, “In the Past” and track 10, “Velvet Gold,” are particularly well suited for this album as those songs (“Living in the Past” and “Velvet Green” respectively) already possessed many classical elements to begin with.

Other tracks were surprising, such as “Bungle,” the string version of “Bungle in the Jungle.” Although it’s a well-known Tull song, it was never a favorite of mine, and I was wary of its ability to translate neatly to a classical sound, but I was pleasantly surprised. I would go so far as to say that I like this string version infinitely more than the original recording, perhaps because of the lack of lyrics which allows the listener to focus more on the actual musical composition.

Not all of the tracks are as familiar. “Farm, the Fourway” is “Farm on the Freeway” from Tull’s 1987 Crest of a Knave, not so well known among rock fans other than hardcore Tull followers except for the amusing trivia that the album beat out Metallica for a heavy metal Grammy.

The second track, “Sossity Waiting,” combines “Sossity: You’re a Woman” from Benefit and “Reasons for Waiting” from Stand Up, two tracks that aren’t recognizable to the casual fan who only knows the radio hits (and note: these songs came before Jethro Tull’s most recognizable period once they released Aqualung in 1971).

If anything, the two tracks off Aqualung, the title track and “Locomotive Breath” (“Aquafugue” and “Loco” respectively) are the least recognizable on the album. While Anderson’s flute maintains the familiarity to the original songs, they lack the power, drive, and dare I say, sexually devious nature that made people fall in love with those tracks in the ’70s. Perhaps it’s also that those songs are based more on jazz melodies that a string quartet simply can’t manage to capture the indefinable essence of what makes those songs unique.

Perhaps my favorite track on this album is “Ring Out These Bells,” admittedly with much personal bias for “Ring Out, Solstice Bells.” Already a beautifully classical tune, the song was practically made for this strings album. I discussed the original track with Ian Anderson in our interview with the singer/songwriter three years ago. You can listen to the new string track below in a video featuring Anderson with the Carducci Quartet:

Classical music fans will appreciate this album for its ability to demonstrate the versatility and respectability of Anderson’s compositions outside of the rock world. Hardcore Tull fans will also enjoy the album as it celebrates the interesting blend of styles and eras that made Jethro Tull such an interesting band. Casual fans will probably only like a few tracks; this album is not particularly for them, and that’s okay.

Jethro Tull – The String Quartets is out today via The End Records and BMG.

About Jen Cunningham 46 Articles
Jen Cunningham is an editor in the puzzle-publishing industry, an amateur artist, and Anglophile hailing from New York. She was raised on good ol' British rock and the smell of vinyl records. When she's not working, she enjoys going to concerts, playing tabletop games, and making unfortunate puns.