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Monday, April 25, 2005
Weekly Artist Overview: Tortoise
In the early 1990's a new genre term began to be bandied about seriously by serious music listeners. The term was "post-rock".
After nearly 40 years, rock had covered a lot of ground. It had incorporated blues, and country, and jazz, and classical, and reggae, and aboriginal music, and skiffle, and ska, and zydeco, and afrobeat, and electronic, and folk, and polka, and salsa, and pretty much everything. The question then was (and still is): are there any other frontiers left for the idiom to cross, or have all roads been exhausted?
That question remains unanswered; however, an answer to where the future may lie began to make itself known at the fringes of alternative rock and the fringes of experimental music.
"Post rock" was a loose movement that drew upon decades of the musical fringe: kraut-rock, minimalist classical (Philip Glass-school), avant-garde jazz, cool jazz, dub, math rock, tape music, electronica, ambient, and all other forms of musics from the edge. These influences varied from artist to artist, but for the most part, the idea was to mix as many disparate forms of music possible into something entirely new. It was usually intrumental based, with no vocals, or vocals subservient to the overall sound. The emphasis was on sonics and texture, not songs and hooks. It was a very cerebral form of music; devoid of image or posture (it was a rare post-rock band that put themselves on the cover).
Which divorces it from rock completely; it's not rock music, nor does it bear a rock image, but it comes from rock, and while it seldom rocks, it often rolls. In a way, it is the thinking man's modern rock.
Tortoise was one of the best post-rock bands of the 90's.
An alternative band that wasn't punk or metal, they instead plundered the vaults for sounds, drawing upon kraut-rock, ambient, avant-garde jazz, electronica, and a wide array of other influences, Tortoise, from Chicago, played a music most akin to cool jazz more than anything else and displayed virtuoso playing, which often featured a droning guitar and two vibraphone players.
Their leader was drummer and producer John McEntire; and most of the band members had indie credits in the Chicago region when the band formed. Tortoise began as a duo of bassist Doug McCombs (ex-Eleventh Dream Day) and drummer-keyboardist-vibes player John Herndon (ex-Poster Children), who began experimenting together in a studio and as an ad-hoc group called "Simple" in 1988. Interested in learning production, they experimented with a variety of rhythm techniques; much of their experimentation was inspired by the rhythms of dub pioneers Sly & Robbie. They considered themselves a rhythm section for hire; willing to back others on recordings. The pair was joined in 1991 by guitarist Bandy K. Brown and drummer-vibes player-producer John McEntire (both ex-Bastro), with an eye towards becoming a "double rhythm section". Percussionist Dan Bitney, who had played in a hardcore group on SST, Tar Babies, came aboard shortly after.
This five-piece cut a couple of singles and released their debut on Thrill Jockey records in 1994. The album Tortoise, became a classic; igniting a Chicago prog-rock subscene and establishing Thrill Jockey records as a player.
It is a rare album where each musician is truly attuned to the others; it is real dynamic playing here. It's an album of grooves, organic sounding, almost ancient sounding, but very new. It has the dynamics and arrangement of cool jazz, but with crunchy, droning guitar and propulsive vibraphones, which work remarkably well. It is angular and taut, but it can roll, too. Perhaps the high point is the track audaciously named "Ry Cooder", which doesn't sound so much like Ry Cooder as it does a grooving de-constructed Ry Cooder, as it takes us through its moves: ominous then jazzy then funky. These shades also inform the rest of the album, which sounds like a spaceship built with vacuum tubes. "Magnet Pulls Through", the leadoff cut, sets the tone and pacing for what follows. The closest rock comparison would perhaps be the kraut-rock of Can, but Can lacked the cool jazz rhythms and strange, rusty ambience. It sold extremely well, exceeding expectations, cementing the band's future, and laying the grounds for what would become a launching pad for the members' myriad of side projects and one-offs.
The album was so successful in some circles that it inspired a remix album, Rhythms, Resolutions and Clusters, featuring Steve Albini, Jim O'Rourke, and Brad Wood and samples from Minnie Riperton and A Tribe Called Quest.
Brown departed to head his own projects prior to Tortoise's second album; David Pajo (ex-Slint) was brought in. In 1995, Tortoise toured with Stereolab, Trans Am and Sea and Cake. John McEntire was enlisted to produce Stereolab's Emperor Tomato Ketchup and debut LPs from 5iveStyle, Trans Am, and Rome, all among the mid-90's new wave of post-rock groups; each owing debt to Tortoise to varying degrees.
Millions Now Living Will Never Die was their 1996 sophomore album. This album cemented Tortoise's reputation as stellar producers as well as instrumentalists. The album's kickoff, the 22-minute lo-fi ambient "Djad", is a parade of their divergent influences, from dub to kraut-rock to indie rock. On this album, Tortoise manages to meld these influences into a work that ebbs and flows and chugs and grooves. "The Taut and the Tame" shows maturation from the debut, as the group shows a real progression from indie rock into something there's still no name for; it has to be called post-rock. On this album the dub and electronica is brought more to the fore, and the jazz retreats a little; much more attention went into production detail and ambient effects than on the first album.
English experimental hip-hop outfit U.N.K.L.E. recorded and released a four-volume series of remixes of "Djed" in 1996.
The first two albums are good enough and influential enough to guarantee Tortoise a place among the top bands of the 90's. However, with 1998's TNT, the band shifted gears. Having gained notice for their studio and production techniques on Millions Now Living Will Never Die, they were stung by some criticism that they had become over-reliant on studio engineering. In a conscious attempt to revitalize the live musicianship that made their debut so special, they recruited Jeff Parker, a free-jazz guitarist (ex-Last Kwartet, Chicago Underground).
TNT, recorded by the sextet at McEntire's new home studio, is a remarkably organic sounding record, considering all the studio work that had gone into the previous one. The dub and electronica have been pushed back in favor of bringing the cool jazz back, still retaining hints of the kraut-rock and dub, but as accent and detail. "I Set My Face To The Hillside" has an excellent Spanish guitar in it, while "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls" is a fine vibraphone workout, both played like jazz but informed by indie rock. "Ten Day Interval" reveals their minimalist side, while the kraut-rock flavor turns up strongest in "Swing from The Gutters". With TNT, the band had completed a three-step process; playing on the first album, producing on the second, and getting them both together on the third. The result is arguably their most satisfying album. Following the sessions for this record, Pajo left.
The band spent part of 1999 playing for Brazilian Tropicalism performer Tom Ze, and played some dates with him in South America.
Having managed all this, they were forced to confront the same question post-rock originally posed; where to from here? Too restless to fall into a formula, Standards, released in 2001, is ten shots into the dark, about half of which find their mark. John McEntire and band still play like fingers connected to the same hand; they still get inventive, and they still experiment with studio devices. "Monica" stretches and bends as it morphs from guitar pop into drum patterns with stereo trickery. "Benway" features the trademark double vibes and heavy bassline of their classic work; "Seneca" is loud and crunchy, atypical of Tortoise. On other tracks, they play in the same organic vein as on the previous album. As a whole, this is a fine listen, but the focus is lost to some degree; in some of the lesser experiments, the band sounds like it is selfconsciously searching for new sounds, regardless of what they may be. It's all interesting; but it doesn't flow like TNT.
The last word from Tortoise so far has been It's All Around You, released in 2004. Those seeking progression of the Tortoise sound will be disappointed; if anything, this is a bit of a retreat. However, if one has come to love the band for its perfectly attuned, empathetic playing, and studio experimentation, this album shows them getting it together again after the uneven Standards. In some respects, it almost sounds as if the band decided they weren't a progressive band anymore, but a distinctly organic one to hone and perfect. In that sense, the band sounds honed and together on It's All Around You, and they sound like classic Tortoise. In particular, the first few tracks on this album flow more seamlessly than any previous Tortoise album; they've added pacing and sequencing to their skills. "The Lithium Shifts", a percussive track that winds up in a dub netherworld, should satisfy the progressive-thirsty fans. If this is as far as Tortoise will develop, and the future is variations on these themes, the band is one of the few who have the chops and the smarts to keep it fresh.
Weekly Artist Overview appears every Monday.
I've been a fan of your site for a while. I'm curious though, how do you manage to have such large posts so often? I'm a huge music person, but the amount of music information here amazes me.
I suspect it might be some kind of autism...
Actually, during the course of a week, I decide which artists and genres to profile. Some I could write about with my eyes closed, because they're lifetime personal favorties. Others, I do some research on. Usually, I'll visit the artist's homepage, a fansite or two, some music reference sites, check CD liner notes, Google names, etc. and take notes of lineup changes, dates, key biographical facts. Usually, I write a post a few days after I get the idea; I'll write it in one shot, while referring to the notes I've made from my research. Sometimes this will yield more than one post; while researching country-rock, I got enough info to cover Gram Parsons, too.
I used to be less thorough, relying more on just memory; then one day I got chewed out by a member of the Faces 2 months ago for misspelling his name and misidentifying a singer on one of their key songs. So, I've since become much more fastidious about fact-checking.
As for the lengthiness of posts, it's a case of finding it hard to stop once I get going; the average post takes me between 1-3 hours, depending on length.
The album art and posters and pics I get from Amazon, ebay, fansites, online vinyl collector's shops, etc.
Finally, on a personal note, some idiots I know online told me that if I ever started a blog, it would suck. So I put in extra efforts just to spite them. :-D
Wow! Thanks for all the information on Tortoise! Great band and one of my all-time favorites. I would love to see them live...Post a Comment