[27 February 2013]
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.