Tentative Review #150

Jethro Tull
Catfish Rising

(released 1991)

1. This Is Not Love ***1/2
2. Occasional Demons **1/2
3. Roll Yer Own **1/2
4. Rocks On The Road ***1/2
5. Sparrow On The Schoolyard Wall ***1/2
6. Thinking Round Corners ***
7. Still Loving You Tonight *1/2
8. Doctor To My Disease **
9. Like A Tall Thin Girl **1/2
10.White Innocence ***
11.Sleeping With The Dog **1/2
12.Gold-Tipped Boots, Black Jacket And Tie ***
13.When Jesus Came To Play ***1/2



All songs written and produced by Ian Anderson.


Catfish Rising has a significant position in Jethro Tull's catalogue, but not an enviable one: it was the last studio album released during the band's extended rut, which began with either Broadsword And The Beast or Under Wraps (depending on who you talk to). After the band's creative juices suddenly started flowing again on Roots To Branches, their albums of the previous 12 years were revealed for what they really were: the sounds of a great band slumming. Mind you, many of us had already reached this conclusion well in advance.

I purchased Catfish Rising shortly after it was released, and was disappointed -- so many of the songs just seemed to plod aimlessly along, lacking any sort of purpose, and some tracks even lacked the sort of cheap entertainment value that could make a lack of purpose forgiveable. There was still some potential there, but the band didn't seem to know what to do with it! Although I've grown to appreciate some tracks on the album now, Catfish Rising still rates as a fairly weak Tull release overall -- sadly, the good bits aren't quite good enough to make that much of a difference.

So, is it the worst album of the group's career? I'm still not certain about this -- Crest Of A Knave was just as mediocre (though "Mountain Men" outshines anything on CR), and A Little Light Music equally plodding. But it's definitely a low water-mark on the group's record, and certainly not an album that I'd recommend to anyone just getting into the group.

In fairness, there are a good number of songs on this album that could have made decent filler material on a better release. Of these, the best of the lot is probably "Rocks On The Road", a folk-rocky track in which Ian laments the brutality of a traveling salesman's life. This track is especially notable for a surprise jazz break in the bridge (featuring the best playing on the album, by far) -- it also has one of the stronger bass lines on the work (by Matt, oddly), and a good showing from Martin. With new keyboardist Andy Giddings also making on a strong case for his talents (on one of only three tracks where he actually plays!), this track indicates the potential of this Tull lineup -- making the quantum leap on Roots To Branches a bit less surprising, in retrospect. Even so, though, it's far from perfect -- Ian's lyrics waver on and off from insight to banality, and the main body of the track never really takes off. With a bit of re-arranging, this track could be turned into something special; as it is, it's only the best of a weak litter.

"This Is Not Love" also embodies the weaknesses of the album, even despite being a half-decent song in its own right. This track has the best lyrics on the album, with Ian pulling out allusions that could have fit on Minstrel In The Gallery or Songs From The Wood. Consider:

"Empty drugstore postcards freeze sunburst images of summers gone. Think I see us in these promenade days before we learned October's song. Out on the headland, one gale-whipped tree; curious, head-bent to see. How come you know better than me that this is not love."

Great lyrics, but the delivery ends up being a bit pedestrian -- a development no doubt encouraged by a creeping "classic rock" ethos that surrounds the entire song. The vocal harmonies are great, and Giddings (again) puts in a good showing on Hammond ... but the track as a whole is just too close to the 1991 hard-rock industry standard for comfort. Barre and Anderson trade a few impressive flute and guitar licks about halfway through -- if only they could have based the entire song on this partnership.

Of the other tracks which basically work, two of them are enjoyable throwaways -- I'm speaking of "Sparrow On The Schoolyard Wall" and "When Jesus Came To Play". The former (with nice keyboard work from Ian, btw) has some decent music, some less so -- Barre's concluding solo is nothing to get excited about. The latter is a fairly standard folk-rock number, which somehow works in spite of its limitations. Despite some clever turns of phrase, neither track has particularly great lyrics. Decent songs, both, but not enough to carry a weak album.

Two other tracks fall into the category of "half-successful experiments". "Thinking Round Corners" has the potential for being a truly impressive song, and might still attain this status if Ian decides to finish writing it. As it is, it's a clever track (both musically and lyrically) that never lives up to its promise. "White Innocence" seems to be a token "throwback" track, the longest on the album and the most solidly rooted in a rich keyboard sound (courtesy of Mr. Paterson, who has also worked with John Martyn and Fish). Unfortunately, the lyric just isn't very interesting (Ian picks up a young hitchhiker, feels guilty about his subsequent arousal, drops her off ... over the space of seven minutes, there's not much drama in this). There's enough here to make it worth hearing once in a while ... but that's about it.

I was actually looking forward to skewering "Gold-Tipped Boots, Black Jacket And Tie" in this review, but listening to it again forced me to admit that it's actually not a bad track from a musical standpoint (the lyrics, though are terrible). The shuffle rhythm is enjoyable, in a harmless sort of way -- the flute and guitar/mandolin mixes work well too. Not a classic or anything, but decent.

The rest of the album is generally just mediocre. "Occasional Demons" has some nice lyrical ideas, but ends up sounding like generic rock. "Roll Yer Own" has some nice guitar touches (mostly from Ian), but it's really not easy to like a lyric this stupid (and it goes on far too long, even before the hidden reprise). "Doctor To My Disease" has a hummable chorus, but is otherwise a rather dismal piece of AOR wreckage -- Barre's guitar solo flirts with the sort of cretin-rock that was popular back in 1991. "Like A Tall Thin Girl" has a decent instrumental bit (with a cool mandolin/flute bit), and I can't help but appreciate any proggish song that sings the praises of Indian cuisine, but ... come on, how am I supposed to appreciate lyrics like this (let alone when sung in a smarmy tone)? "Sleeping With The Song", for its part, is a textbook plod-blues- rock track that never really amounts to much at all.

All of these tracks are pretty dire in their own way, but none are completely unlistenable. That honour falls to "Still Loving You Tonight", a godawful track that brings out all of the worst tendencies in retro-"classic rock". The song absolutely drowns itself in a Clapton- Michelob morass, reaching an absolute low on Ian's anguished belting on the song-title about halfway through. Why on earth the band decided to subject audiences to this rubbish in the subsequent tour isn't at all clear -- what is clear, though, is that the band managed to tap into one of the worst songs of their career here.

In retrospect, it's possible that the mediocrity of this album was the result of ongoing stagnation within the band. Dave Pegg doesn't get many chances to shine on this album, and some reports have suggested that he was more concerned with Fairport Convention than Jethro Tull at this point. Martin Barre, for his part, seems a bit too enamoured with a mainstream hard-rock sound, Doane Perry is competent but unspectacular, and Andy Giddings is hardly around enough to make any real difference. And Ian? Presiding over this situation, Ian doesn't seem to have muchto offer. Generally speaking, the band lives and dies by his efforts --and in this case, he seems either unable or unwilling to break up theband's basic inertia. Thankfully, this would change on Roots ToBranches ... but that was four years away.

There's enough good stuff here for diehard Tull fans to appreciate, but there's no reason I can think of for anyone else to buy it.

The Christopher Currie

(review originally posted to alt.music.yes on 25 Apr 2000)

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