Wednesday, November 28, 2007
TORTOISE - s/t LP (Thrill Jockey/1994)
What brings on the synopsis for this? Prior to a couple of weeks back, I hadn't spun the thing in close to a decade. Two things: some jack-a-ninny indie band played a more recent (which actually could've been anything they've done in the last decade) clip of theirs on Rage a few weeks back, which I enjoyed; and secondly, a few friends of mine - friends whom I respect and who possess a love and knowledge of a wide variety of music, everything from pre-War blues right on thru to classic HC, Japanese psych and deep acid-house trance or whatever variety of dance-oriented horseshit I will never understand in a thousand lifetimes (though come back to me in 10 years...) - these people LOVE TORTOISE. And they tell me I'm being a jackass for throwing in the towel w/ the band right after the release of their thoroughly underwhelming 3rd album from 1998, TNT.
Fact is, I'll be upfront about this: I was one of the first kids on the block to cotton onto Tortoise... I think. Bought the debut after it was first listed in Tim Adams' Ajax catalogue back in '94 (and boy, what a tastemaker that guy was there for a while; when I hung w/ him for a day in Chi-town in '99 he was a burnt-out shell of a man... what ever happened to him??), and promptly hailed them as the new face of post-punk music in America, or something like that. I guess everyone else did, too. Much like, say, Minutemen, Swans or Sonic Youth back in the '80s, they were seen as some sort of logical progression from the HC baldies into more interesting musical territories, or, if you want to be cynical about it, you could say they were the prog-rockers of the '90s, w/ all the bad connotations such a term implies: old geezers who used to like it short, fast and loud, learnt to play their instruments, got all fancy-schmancy and proceeded to bore the shit out of everyone for a decade. Well, I don't believe in that synopsis, but it probably holds some weight in certain circles. They certainly inspired a sea of insipid dog manure in the wake of their success, though, much like the Descendents - another once-great band who released a monster of a debut album back in the day and seemingly inspired a few generations of lightwieght turdery to be foisted onto the public ever since - I won't blame them for their imitators. That's right, I just compared Tortoise to the Descendents.
What happened w/ my Tortoise fandom? In 1996 came Millions Now Living Will Never Die, seen by many - especially the UK press - as a godsend, probably because it was a bunch of yanks copping moves from the Limeys (dub, PiL-ish post-punk, Eno-esque ambience), but still, I'd be lying if I didn't admit it impressed the living bejesus out of moi. It did. Skip to 1998, and TNT is released. By then I was knee-deep in '70s Miles, Amon Duul, Cecil Taylor and all kindsa rackety-assed nonsense, and I can tell you that the bantam-weight fusionoid pleasantries of TNT went down like led zeppelin in my household. I proceeded to from then-on proclaim the band as dead on arrival, a bunch of washed-up nancy-boy muso-heads and something I wished to erase from my memory. Funnily enough, I saw them play in Melbourne a couple of years later - probably just for old-time's sake - and they left zilch impression on me.
Which now brings me to 2007. Their first album, some 13-and-a-half years later, sounds utterly bloody excellent. If I still had my copy of Millions Now..., I'd probably give it a similar conclusion, especially w/ that centrepiece track, "DJed", a 20-minute epic which bridged the worlds of dub, PiL and Neu! Those worlds are pretty darn close, I know, but just bear w/ me here. The centrepiece track for their self-titled album is likely "Spiderwebbed", eight-and-a-half minutes of slowly enveloping bass-drum rhythms which, like its namesake, weaves a web as it progresses from a simple bass riff to a jungle of percussion and interweaving melodies. It's still impressive, as is the bulk of the disc: cocktail jazz, Can-style acid-funk workouts, slabs of ambient sound. This is smarty-pants American rock from the 1990s, and a good thing it remains. My mind is now open again to the potential wonders of the band known as Tortoise.