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Tortoise

+ {John McEntire}

Formed 1990 in Chicago, Illinois, initially as an experimental jamming group, bassist Douglas McCombs and drummer/synth-twiddler John Herndon, finally settled with the nucleus of John McEntire (synths, drums & vibraphone), Bundy K. Brown (guitar & bass) and Dan Bitney (percussion & synths), all five members stemming from various indie outfits. TORTOISE initially crawled out of their collective shell with a series of maxi-singles (`Mosquito’ and `Lonesome Sound’), before finally unleashing their eponymous debut on the Thrill Jockey imprint.
The eponymous TORTOISE (1994) {*8} stripped away the shackles of their musical adversaries, mathematical post-rock (math-rock) was now born. `Night Air’ and other such cuts seemed a million miles from anything their “grunge” counterparts were trying to achieve, slo-core to the extreme and comfortably transfixed to a studio, choosing dynamic dub and repetitive rhythms over conventional R&R (think SLINT or LaBRADFORD). Others such as `Onions Wrapped In Rubber’, `Ry Cooder’ and `Magnet Pulls Through’ were slightly overshadowed by the beats of `On Noble’, `Flyrod’ and `Cornpone Brunch’ and the longest track of the bunch, `Spiderwebbed’; trademark guitar-bass-drums jazz fusions lying somewhere between WEATHER REPORT and DURUTTI COLUMN.
Remixed by Steve Albini and Jim O’Rourke, RHYTHMS, RESOLUTIONS & CLUSTERS (1995) {*7}, was basically an EP (or to some a mini-album), however, the non-formulaic record proved TORTOISE to be the foremost purveyors of cut ’n’ mix avant-jazz.
The band’s second album proper, MILLIONS NOW LIVING WILL NEVER DIE (1996) {*10} – featuring the STEREOLAB trio of Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen – fared even better than their previous efforts, opening as it did with the (Autobahn-period)/KRAFTWERK-esque, 21-minute marathon of `Djed’. The pulsating track was subsequently given the “Mo Wax” treatment, the extent of the band’s appeal illustrated by their impressive run of collaborations over the course of the next year. David Pajo (ex-SLINT) had filled the boots of Bundy, the prog-rock legacy continuing through tracks such as `Glass Museum’, the bass-y `A Survey’ and `The Taut And Tame’; closing cinematic cue `Along The Banks Of Rivers’ conjured up a triumvirate of MORRICONE, COODER or PINK FLOYD.
The hard-working McENTIRE – who was also a part-time member of the RED CRAYOLA and the SEA AND CAKE – returned to the studio at the end of the year, beavering away on what was to be, arguably another semi-classic TORTOISE set, TNT (1998) {*8} – a moody journey from cool avant-jazz rock that unsuspectingly flowed into complex rhythmical landscapes; Jeff Parker had now superseded AERIAL-M bound Pajo. The record proved a hard listen for alt-rock buffs, one rock-press reviewer even having the audacity to give it 0 out of 10 (must’ve been the amateurish sleeve artwork). From its opening beats on `Swing From The Gutters’ to the excellence that was follow-on cue `Ten-Day Interval’, all set the tone to a horizontal album that overwhelmed rather than underwhelmed. Like film music without the feature itself (ENO tried this many times), TORTOISE just blow-fi a lazy day into touch on `I Set My Face To The Hillside’ and `A Simple Way To Go Faster Than Light That Does Not Work’ – but this is where it drifts into COODER-meets-disco territory. Lounge-rock reared its Bontempi head through the deluxe delight of `The Equator’ and/or `In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, And Beethoven…’, while the ZAPPA-esque `Bridge At Iguazu Falls’ floated by without a furry moustache in sight. Track 8, `Four-Day Interval’, revealed a sound reminiscent of RYUICHI SAKAMOTO, and that ENO feel returned via closing cut, `Everglade’.
JOHN McENTIRE subsequently found time in his busy schedule to compose REACH THE ROCK (1999) {*6}, a soundtrack that contained a few numbers from his current bands. In fact it was the excellent TORTOISE (and `In the Thimble’) that kicked off McENTIRE’s foray into film scores. Whether he leant on film-music specialists TANGERINE DREAM for inspiration on track 2, `Criminal Record’, was anyone’s guess, however `Overview’ ebbed, flowed and twanged like every good TORTOISE instrumental should. McENTIRE’s old “shell-mate”, Bundy K. Brown’s sole/soul contribution, `Drift’, got all down ‘n’ dirty with its drum ‘n’ bass bending the ear into proverbial submission. McENTIRE’s remaining solo pieces (`Quinn Goes To Town’, `Lise Arrives’, `The Kiss’ and `Main Title’) – all a little short – completed a horizontal album, nice for Sunday mornings or when one wanted some quiet, “own” time.
After a one-off collaboration, IN THE FISHTANK 5 (1999) {*5} alongside Dutch indie-meisters, the EX, TORTOISE resumed their position as electronica’s top groove-sters via their fourth album proper, STANDARDS (2001) {*6} – licensed to seminal UK imprint, Warp.
McEntire and the group “Prog”-ressed with every mixed-up, well-rehearsed bass and vibraphone beat, although it didn’t quite match the breezy experimentation of their previous work. Could any tune get closer to `Star-Spangled Banner’ than the opening drafts of `Seneca’? And how many ENO songs can one think of when you hear third track, `Benway’? – and just when one’d drifted into that thought process, it metamorphosed into something akin to ZAPPA (again!). Never sticking to the norm, TORTOISE created a hotchpotch of soundscapes: bright and light at times (i.e. `Six Pack’ and STEVIE WONDER-ish disco cut, `Monica’), others deep and complex (e.g. `Eden 2’ and `Blackjack’).
Meanwhile, the trio of Parker, Herndon and Bitney were also behind ISOTOPE 217, an inevitable offshoot which catered to the guys’ jazzier urges. TORTOISE eventually followed up with IT’S ALL AROUND YOU (2004) {*5}, a largely disappointing and derivative TORTOISE-by-numbers album that did little to excite the listener. Trying too hard to break the mould or hard shell that surrounded an expectant fresh release, the peaceful, easy theme explored exotic rhythms and picture-postcard segues that served only to frustrate the listener. As the night fell on third concentric piece, `Crest’ (on the back of `The Lithium Shifts’ and the title track), one missed the build-ups and crescendos, so endearing of the once mighty TORTOISE.
2006’s THE BRAVE AND THE BOLD {*6} took a different tack again, a full-blown, BONNIE `PRINCE’ BILLY-partnered covers set tackling the genius of everyone from Brazilian balladeer Milton Nascimento (`Cravo E Canela’; in brave Kentucky via Minas Gerais Portuguese no less!), folk statesman RICHARD THOMPSON (`The Calvary Cross’) and new wave nutters DEVO (`That’s Pep!’), to ELTON JOHN (`Daniel’) and BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN, himself (`Thunder Road’)’ the others on board were `It’s Expected I’m Gone’ (MINUTEMEN), `Love Is Love’ (LUNGFISH), `Pancho’ (DON WILLIAMS), `(Some Say) I Got Devil’ (MELANIE) and `On My Own’ (QUIX*O*TIC) .
Much to everyone’s surprise, the unhurried TORTOISE beached up again for 2009’s BEACONS OF ANCESTORSHIP {*7}. Post-rock pioneers maybe, the prog-like krautrock by way of opening salvo `High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In’ and `Prepare Your Coffin’ displayed the creativity they’d promised a decade and a half ago. Much more upbeat and less of the dreary noodling, Chicago’s favourite sons of magmatic rock had hit the Billboard Top 150 for the very first time, bubbling to the surface best on `Gigantes’, the pile-driving punk of `Yinxianghechengqi’ and the reserved finale `Charteroak Foundation’.
Of late, TORTOISE have exercised their right to rest, although the team did get behind the score to horror flick, Lovely Molly. A near 7-year wait for album 7 was ironic or indeed coincidental, although for the early-2016 release of THE CATASTROPHIST {*7}, the jury was definitely out, as mixed reviews suggested. If one can waive away their sticky-toffee cover of DAVID ESSEX’s `Rock On’, or the sombre 60s-styled song (`Yonder Blue’) by YO LA TENGO’s Georgia Hubley, the quintessential quintet turned back the dials of their DeLorean to when post-rock was in vogue and shape-shifting around the windy airwaves of Chicago – a city more align with the blues. Simple in its structure on initial dispatch to the earlobes, the building blocks mutate and re-arrange themselves in such a way as to take the mind on a multitude of journeys: the percussive overtones, the knotty bass, the dreamy surf-guitar licks and the prog-“aggressive” synths/keys, all switch up a gear with `Gesceap’ (the longest piece at 7 minutes), `Shake Hands With Danger’, the busy `Tesseract’, the horizontal title track and the freeze-dried-funk of `Hot Coffee’. A slow-burner as with most TORTOISE products.
© MC Strong/MCS 1997-2006 // rev-up MCS Jul2015-Jan2016

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