Tortoise is one of those steadfastly independent bands who’ve never aimed for the mainstream, and they’ve been progressively honing their unique sound for two decades now. Eschewing the typical rhythms of rock ‘n’ roll while incorporating influences from krautrock, electronica, and jazz, the group’s relaxed-but-watch-tight songs cover so much ground that it’s difficult to get a handle on exactly what Tortoise sounds like like. (“Post-rock” being a useless and lamentably over-applied favorite.)
While the band’s entire catalog is well worth your time, here are ten Tortoise songs drawn from their discography (discounting their cover album with Bonnie “Prince” Billy) that I feel best sum up the group’s sound.
I’m not sure what guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder has to do with Tortoise, but this song’s slippery grooves and stripped-down aesthetic are a great introduction to the group—they sound like everything from a broken FM transmitter to a lounge-jazz group from Mars over the course of seven minutes. Tortoise would get more adept at production and studio wizardry as they went on, but the surging structural changes and subtle instrumental virtuosity are fully on display here. The riff at 2:13 is one for the ages.
Standards isn’t the strongest Tortoise album, but it does contain some real gems. “Seneca” opens with an expansive, clattering free-jazzish section that swells for nearly two minutes before shifting abruptly into buzzing synth lines held up by a skittery, electronica-influenced beat. The band pulls at every available thread through the track, from noisy guitar to oddball sound effects, and though it lacks the gut-punch emotionalism of their best work, it’s still a marvel to behold.
I’m all for the Grateful Dead and the Allman Brothers, but to my mind, there’s no finer double-drummer unit in music than John Herndon and John McIntire. Their remarkable chops never get in the way of musical empathy, even in songs like “Swung From the Gutters”, which essentially demands that they both just pound the ever-lovin’ crap out of their respective kits at the same time. Guitarist Jeff Parker, who joined Tortoise in time for TNT, deserves a lot of credit as well—despite being a remarkably fluid guitarist , he manages to make his lines sound strangled and hesitant while still being perfectly in time, something that goes a long way towards Tortoise’s unique rhythmic feel.
(Beacons of Ancestorship, 2009)
Every group needs an unspoken secret weapon, and Tortoise’s is bassist Doug McCombs. His rock-solid bass work, economical melodic and rhythm guitar parts, and keys (sometimes all in one song) keep the band grounded, especially in tunes like “Gigantes”, where overlapping rhythms and tricky interlaced parts would send a lesser group careening out of control. Another great example of McIntire/Herndon’s inspired pummeling as well.
With the vocoded spoken speech and sampled horn bursts, “Cornpone Brunch” starts with a bit of misdirection, before sailing smoothly into the unison lines and nimble drum work that characterize the group. Some truly beautiful stuff here, especially the “B” theme that takes over briefly at 1:19. Tortoise’s greatest strength as a band is that they never let their their avant-garde leanings get in the way of some pretty chord changes and a wistful melody, something the hordes of bands aping them would do well to keep in mind.