The View From the Middle
Chicago is no Seattle. It’s no Athens, Omaha or Detroit either. It’s too big a city to give birth to the next indie music breakthrough, as tiny Athens was in the mid-‘80s, or medium-sized Seattle was in the early ‘90s, and Omaha and Detroit have been more recently. At the same time, Chicago is forever looked upon as an also-ran to the pulsing hubs of American music: New York and Los Angeles. Chicago is the second city, a stopover point for those traveling between coasts. But like so many who reside in between, musicians creating from Chicago’s rich vantage point have a unique perspective on what’s happening everywhere else in the country. In short: being halfway between everything helps. Chicago is old, working class and full of jazz and the blues, all of which gave birth to rock and roll. It’s the city that sees it all happen, and then shares its opinion. So it’s no wonder that a band like Tortoise would spring from such an environment. It’s important to understand where this group comes from to truly appreciate what Tortoise is trying to do on record. Drawing from divergent musical styles, from jazz to electronica, Tortoise creates complex instrumental compositions that refer back to the history of popular music, and synthesize it into the future.
Labeled by more than one rock critic as the ultimate post-rock band, Tortoise gestated in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood more than a decade ago, before the area became gentrified and plastered with lofts and condominiums. Group members first came together in 1990 when vibraphonist/drummer John Herndon and bassist Doug McCombs began playing and recording together. The two were soon joined by guitarist Bundy K. Brown, percussionist Dan Britney and a second vibraphonist/drummer John McEntire. The group eventually added guitarist Jeff Parker as well. It is McEntire who is largely credited for focusing the group’s sound, and establishing them on their current course; no small task for a group of musicians used to playing in a variety of bands in Chicago’s assorted music scene. Tortoise began recording a series of seven-inch singles for local label Thrill Jockey in 1993, and remain with the label to this day. Tortoise achieved indie star status with the release of their second album: Millions Now Living Will Never Die, a transcendent collage of numerous musical styles. After the album’s release, Tortoise optioned tracks to be remixed by avant-garde producers such as Jon Brion and James Lavelle. The group went on to make two more albums, TNT and Standards before completing their latest release: It’s All Around You.
Since the group’s earlier ground-breaking releases, you can hear their influence in a variety of recent acts, ranging in diversity from Godspeed You Black Emperor to Boards of Canada and DJ Krush. All combine moody, airy pieces that update progressive rock as much as they do jazz. None of these artists are all that interested in commercial success, or even fitting neatly within the confines of a single genre. This allows each the freedom to do whatever they want.
Tortoise’s music isn’t something you’d throw in your car on a sunny day drive to the beach. It’s ethereal and atmospheric and great for headphone trips. The music’s poignancy won’t undo you, but you’ll come out in a different mood than the one you held onto when you started listening. This is a rock band that moves at the speed of jazz: which means that the group waits an eternity between records, only to release an album that’s light years from the where the previous recording stood. So in a way, It’s All Around You, Tortoise’s latest record, is striking for its similarity to the group’s previous albums. Longtime fans will notice parallels between the song cycle that opens It’s All Around You, and the epic “Djed,” that opened the group’s genre-defining second album Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Both albums begin with what might be interpreted as both the tradition of aural influences on modern rock, and the slow evolution of the artistic component that makes us human. It’s All Around You begins with what sounds like a meandering Santana guitar riff circa 1972’s jazz-fused Caravanserai, accompanied by a meandering bass line that’s quickly reinforced by the Latin rhythm button on John McEntire’s handy Casio keyboard. Instruments and sounds merge in until “It’s All Around You” sounds like a Quentin Tarrantino Western scored by Ennio Morricone.
“It’s All Around You” floats directly into “The Lithium Shifts”, with its harmonizing womens’ vocals, like something from your favorite Blake Edwards comedy. Except the scat-like harmonies are cut up, and off, in places, while the Casio beats gallop on. This has the effect of creating an interesting fabric of nostalgia woven with the futuristic smell of ozone. A looped piano bridge enters, and is quickly bent, adding to the feeling that everything about the music is just a little twisted. “Lithium Shifts” crashes headlong into the magnificent, aptly titled “Crest”, which moves the composition from stylized Western to Vangelis in his Bladerunner heyday. This is really the climax of an opening song cycle that’s meant to be heard together, eventually fading out into a series of muffled drum fills and the rest of the album.
While the rest of the tracks on It’s All Around You are interesting, and draw influence from divergent sources in modern music, the album never really peaks again. “Stretch (You Are All Right)” begins with a deliberate, funky bass line, and downshifts with the help of distorted succeeding fading guitar lines. Tortoise’s signature vibraphone duels with a keyboard, the sound playfully transitioning into the foreground where they ultimately intertwine. The whole thing stops two thirds of the way through, then begins again with the same bass line, this time giving the aftereffects to shine, which are ghosts of a flannel guitar, which quickly echo out to end the track.
“Dot/Eyes” is a jazzy percussion line filtered through more of that distorted guitar, with lots of psychedelic effects sprinkled in, like police sirens that sound like they’ve been run through a washing machine, and funky guitar strokes suggesting the beginning of Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child”. Fans of DJ Shadow might recognize some of the turntablist’s influence here. “On the Chin” reinterprets the Western portion of the opening song cycle through the eyes of Tangerine Dream, this time with a happier ending. Reverse looped distorted drums are used nicely for the songs transitions.
Tortoise does a good job using this opening cycle as the template from which to build the rest of the album from. As usual, they’ve mixed and matched the parts in such a way that it’s easy to forget they’re supposed to be a “rock” group, and not what jazz has become. If you like Tortoise, you’ll probably like this album. While It’s All Around You doesn’t break much new ground for the group, it doesn’t disappoint. There’s nothing throwaway about the record. For those looking for new perspective on where popular music’s been, and where it’s going, look no further. For those curious about how It’s All Around You stacks up against other Tortoise records, you might consider it a way station in between the group’s past and future major destinations.
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