Tortoise - The Catastrophist
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Tortoise must be heart-sick of being compared to their animal namesake in reviews by now. But it's just such a great metaphor, isn't it? They don't do things in a hurry, just like a tortoise. And their music is sometimes slow and stately, just like a tortoise. And they've been responsible for some of the most intriguing, beautiful and uncompromising records of the last 25 years, just like a - well, it's not entirely watertight, but you can see how one would be tempted to run with it. Run with it slowly. JUST LIKE A BLOODY TORTOISE.
Enough fantastic writing already! Tortoise's long career has embraced, and subsequently set the standard for, post-rock (1996's exemplary Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which was reissued earlier this month); post-jazz (1998's TNT); and post-just-about-everything (2009's Beacons of Ancestorship). It's been seven years since that last record, although they've hardly been dormant in that time, contributing to Beck's Record Club, and lending production duties to countless associated acts.
The Catastrophist, like much of the band's previous work, is both a consolidation of previous sounds, and a foray into newer territories. The opening titular track bursts in with squiggly synths before relenting to a more considered groove, melody and counter-melody playing off each other, much in the way that 'TNT' did back in 1998. On lead track 'Gesceap' wave after wave of warm analogue noise, similar to that found on Beacons, is woven into a dizzying tapestry; on 'Shake Hands With Danger' a clanging melody is gradually overwhelmed by paranoid keyboard lines and busy percussion.
So far, so classic Tortoise. But there are curios to be found here, too: the band's use of vocalists has been sparing to say the least, but The Catastrophist contains two very different experiments. 'Rock On' is indeed a David Essex cover, but it's a lurching, woozy affair, with a growling vocal turn from US Maple and Dead Riders frontman Todd Rittman. Strange as I've made it sound, it works well in context, providing a palette-cleanser after the two dense opening tracks. Later on, Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley sounds at home amidst a second half that in places recalls her own band's excursions into tropical textures circa Summer Sun (particularly 'The Clearing Fills'). 'Yonder Blue' is sweet soul laced with sinister synths; it crackles where it could easily have just slipped by.
I once read a description of Lambchop's lush double album Aw C'mon / No You C'mon which called it 'a celebration of being in Lambchop' - the same principle applies to Tortoise and The Catastrophist. It's the sound of a band pushing themselves, but loving every minute of the process. Certainly their best record since 2001's Standards, here Tortoise sound revitalised - concise, playful and sharp. They may move slowly, but when they do, it is always with renewed purpose.
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Tortoise don't lend themselves easily to categorisation. They rose out of the fertile Chicago jazz scene of the early 90s, but since their debut almost eighteen years ago they have hopped from genre to genre, underpinned by a jazz sensibility that drove them to strike out in unexpected directions, but producing music that could hardly be considered alongside even the most avant garde of the genre, 1998's TNT excepted. [read more]