The 10 Best Tortoise Songs

by Alexander Heigl

27 February 2013


5 - 1

5. “Salt the Skies”
(It’s All Around You, 2004)

“Heavy” isn’t typically a term applied to bands who write for guitar, vibraphone, and synthesizers, but I’d set “Salt the Skies” up against more stereotypically “heavy” music any day. The relentless opening riff is heavier than lead, and around 2:30, Parker starts to channel a different kind of Led. (Har, har.) Then the original Westminster chimes-aping riff comes in and Parker starts his best Sonny Sharrock imitation, before the group smoothly drops back into the previous riff to ride out the track. Let’s see Darkthrone do that.

4. “TNT”
(TNT, 1998)

Parker’s jazz leanings were most influential on the group during TNT  which is probably why on the record, this track has layered, meandering horn parts in its outro melange. But “TNT” is more of an example of Tortoise’s ability to string section after section of song together without it ever feeling disconnected. “TNT” is nearly eight minutes long on the record, with (by my count) three distinct sections, but it still feels concise. That’s a triumph for any band, especially an instrumental one.

3. “Glass Museum”
(Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1996)

Tortoise’s music isn’t exactly “sexy”, but “Glass Museum” is maybe the closest they get. Of course, it has shifting time signatures and a super-aggro part starting at 3:24 that makes me feel like I’m riding through an ice cave on a hover-cycle (maybe that’s just me), but that opening swell of vibraphone and guitar wash is boots-knockin’ music if I’ve ever heard it.

2. “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In”
(Beacons of Ancestorship, 2009)

Did you ever have sex with someone that you thought could like, totally kick your ass? That’s kind of what this song makes me think of. It’ s groovy, limber, and fon-kay (that’s funky +1), but it’s heavy as balls. By the time you get to the song’s double-timed outro, I guarantee you will feel like you’re having sex with Pris from Blade Runner in a spaceship and that she is about to snap your neck. Whoever High Class Slim was, I’m kind of happy I never met him. Dude sounds like a badass.

1. “Djed”
(Millions Now Living Will Never Die, 1996)

You knew it had to be this way. “Djed” would be on Tortoise’s tombstone if it were customary to bury bands together. (Which it isn’t …yet.) It’s sprawling, yes, and it lacks the brevity of some of their later work, but it’s a monumental achievement—a fully-realized work that’s practically a mini-history 20th century avant-garde music. Each of its sections is a different facet of Tortoise’s personality, and you can hear the roots of all of their later work within “Djed”. That this came out in a year dominated by “Wonderwall”, “Wannabe”, the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly”, and the fucking “Macarena” still blows my mind. This band was so far ahead of its time, we’re still catching up to them now.

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