TORTOISE The Taut And Tame (City Slang)

"The Taut And Tame" is the fourth and final instalment of Tortoise’s series of limited edition remix 12" singles, featuring a version of the title track administered to by Luke Vibert a.k.a. Wagon Christ a.k.a. Plug, and "Find The One (Wait, Abstraction No.3)" a reworking, by former Tortoise member Bundy K. Brown, of the track "Wait". Unusually for remixes, which generally require some familiarity with the original before they make any sense, both tunes presented here are terrific from the first: the needle of the odorous comparison meter is hovering towards "Tindersticks with Goldie playing quietly several rooms away", with the accent on the unlikely combination of vibraphones, disjointed trumpet noodling and muted breakbeats. It manages to be entrancing, hypnotic and almost ethereal, without sounding like The Cocteau Twins, and is so meticulously produced it’ll turn your turntable into God’s Walkman (especially the deep bass on "Find The One"). The jungle/easy listening crossover starts here.


Tortoise’s third album sees them charting even more magnificent directions in sound than on 1996’s "Millions Now Living Will Never Die". This time round the sextet of Dan Bitney, John Hendon, Eleventh Dream Day’s Douglas McCombs, John McEntire (from The Sea And Cake, also a noted producer), David Pajo (once in Slint, now departed to spend more time with his Aerial M project) and Jeff Parker (formerly of Chicago Underground Orchestra) have arrived at a balmy fount of jazz electronica, sort of equal parts "In A Silent Way" and "The Man Machine".

It may have something to do with the use of brass and string sections on certain tracks, or possibly the fact that at 65 minutes they’ve finally allowed themselves enough space to relax into their peculiar brand of intellectual instrumentals, perhaps even the spectre of young upstarts such as Mogwai snapping at their heels, but with "TNT" Tortoise seem to have taken another lollop into the unknown, another defiant attempt to prevent all music without vocals being lumped together in the ambient wallpaper bucket.

Most of the time it’s a spectacular success. There’s the jagged, angular melodies of the title track, for example. The soothing, mallet-assisted tones and drones of the matching twinset "Ten-Day Interval" and "Four-Day Interval" evoke pleasant memories of some of rock’s pioneering attempts at going global, for example Peter Gabriel’s fourth album (the track "San Jacinto" in particular) and Byrne and Eno’s "My Life In The Bush Of Ghosts". "I Set My Face To The Hillside" rewrites "Across The Banks Of Rivers" from "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" as a Morricone spaghetti Western soundtrack, complete with quavering guitar and distant playground sounds. The frenetic "Jetty" almost plays like squidgy Aphex Twin techno before revealing itself to be in possession of a hook to die for.

Sadly, I also feel that it is my duty to report that there are times when Tortoise’s latest offering falls flat on its face: too many plinky-plonky cheap keyboard sounds, and evidence of more time and effort spent on conjuring up song titles than the tunes they refer to - "A Simple Way To Go Faster Than Light That Does Not Work", "The Suspension Bridge At Iguanzu Falls", "In Sarah, Menchen, Christ And Beethoven There Were Women And Men", yes? And if only they’d been a little more selective: "TNT" achieves little more in over an hour than "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" managed in forty minutes.

I still love Tortoise though, and, bearing these caveats in mind, "TNT" is a great album, one that I’ve been listening to pretty much constantly over the last week. Perhaps the final words should be those of the warning stickers atop the cartoon tortoises pictured on the disc itself: "Tortoise. Caution: Flammable - moves on ground, emits flaming pellets. Use only under close adult supervision. For outdoor use only. Place on hard level surface. Do not hold in hand. Light fuse and get away." What can they be trying to say?

TORTOISE THE EX In The Fishtank 5 (Atomic)

The sleevenotes explain it thus: ""In The Fishtank" is a project of Konkurrent Onafhankelijk Muziekbedrijf and Atomic Recordings. In this collection of short length lp's Konkurrent invites bands to whom they are strongly related, to record while touring in Holland. These bands are given two days to put on 24 tracks 20 to 30 minutes of whatever they like: regular songs, funny versions, improvised pieces…The Fishtank offers a space for expression and experimentation". This fifth volume in the series is the first to make any impression over here, which suggests that the participants in previous outings had less international appeal than Tortoise, if you can imagine that.

So, to this party Tortoise bring their vibraphones and a delicate diffusion of prog, jazz and techno, and The Ex haul in a Marshall stack's worth of distorted guitar, unkempt vocals and anger. The results are not comfortable listening, and there is blood on the carpet. There are moments when you suspect that one of Tortoise's intricate melodies might be attempting to make a point in all the ruckus, before it gets drowned by noise again. One track, "Huge Hidden Spaces", seems to consist predominately of arrhythmic low-frequency grumbling. Not pretty, far from enjoyable, "In The Fishtank 5" reminds us that how boundary-trashing and exciting experiments may seem in theory, sometimes they just don't work in practice.

TORTOISE Standards (Warp)

Fourth time around, radical changes seem to be afoot in the Tortoise camp. Their previous albums have charted an endearing journey towards the perfect synthesis of man and machine music, reaching the point where parts of "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" and "TNT" suggested Kraftwerk jamming with "In A Silent Way"-era Miles Davis, all washed with Eno's pastel ambience. "Standards" is almost an entirely different kettle of cherries, capturing the band teetering on the verge of 'rocking out'. The distressed stars-and-stripes cover artwork seems of greater significance when you notice that the distorted guitar/percussion haystack tussle that opens the album is strongly reminiscent of Hendrix's take on "The Star-Spangled Banner". And how about the first few moments of "Monica", which just has to be a homage the majesty of Peter Frampton's voice-box guitar.

The net effect of all this Seventies-style upheaval on the trademark Tortoise sound is not a happy one, to these ears. In olden days Tortoise's music seemed to be all about melodies: long, languid lines that drew equally from classical tradition, jazz and Krautrock to create something fresh and interesting. "Standards" seems far more interested in rhythm: what little melody that remains seems confined to brief, fractured stabs of tunery that reminds me curiously of the Mahavishnu Orchestra, not a ruinous comparison of course, but distressingly distant from the cosseting, comfort-blanket Tortoise soundworld that I know and love. In fact, although they probably see themselves as aligning ever-closer to others inked to their new label, techno intelligentsia Warp, my ears find them shuffling towards a kind of impossibly hip, frosty, post-grunge version of Camel - all progression and no progress.

TORTOISE A Lazarus Taxon (Thrill Jockey)

“A Lazarus Taxon” charts an idiosyncratic path through the quietly industrious post-rockers’ catalogue. Anthologising three CDs’ worth of rarities, with a bonus DVD of videos and live footage, it’s as valuable to the hardcore fan as the newcomer, and also delightfully inexpensive: I picked my copy up for under £9. Packaged in a similar cardboard boxed style to Stereolab’s “Oscillons From The Anti-Sun”, I wonder whether any significance can be read into Urs Odermatt’s cover photograph of a tunnel and what looks like an accident-debilitated white Fiat.

Perhaps it’s typical of the band’s amorphous appeal that the booklet contains a different essay in each of five languages. Look at the succinct track descriptions and words like extended, reinterpretation, rewritten, rerecorded and remixed crop up time and again. In the English notes, American guitarist Alan Licht quotes a 1994 Professor Eno essay: “It used to be the case that a record was expected to contain the definitive and perhaps only version of a song, and that the job of the band and the producer was to create this ‘ideal’ object…once we get used to the idea that we are no longer consumers of ‘finished’ works…we find ourselves leaving a world of ‘know your own station’ passivity…we stop regarding things as fixed and unchangeable”. As well as the means of (re)production, Eno’s ever-shifting, ever-changing aesthetic could also apply to your typical Tortoise composition. Take “Gamera” as an example, its rhythms, melodies and accents shifting subtly in and out of focus throughout its duration, like a compacted version of The Necks’ hour-plus epic “Drive By”.

“The Source Of Uncertainty”’s junkyard clatter and restless bass sounds like a savagely chopped-up house anthem. Autechre contribute a fractured interpretation of the “TNT” track “Ten Day Interval”, here scrambled into “To Day Retrieval”, and Tortoise remake Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” their own, remodelling it as a Möbius strip of Stylophone jazz. “Blue Station” is a spiderweb of heavily processed gurgling electric bass; “Madison Area” quotes the mysterious squeaking heard on Paul Simon’s “Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard”. Nobukazu Takemura overlays warm chimes over the structure of “TNT”’s title track, which later morphs into what sounds like a brass section of gulls skittering across an ocean of tuned percussion. “Peering” settles somewhere between early Gary Numan and the “Close Encounters Of The Third Kind” motif; “As You Said” is a Morricone whine created from reconstituted parts of the Joy Division songbook.

The third CD consists of the 1994 remix mini-album “Rhythms, Resolutions And Clusters” in its entirety, now united for the first time with a Mike Watt remix of “Cornpone Brunch”, left off the original when the master tape was damaged in the mail. It’s here that the box hits its most concentrated groove of goodness, these remixes wierdening out the often terse sound of early Tortoise to frequently fascinating effect, breaking apart melody and leaving these pieces as exercises in rhythm and texture. “Alcohall” is a synthesised rainforest beset by all manner of distant percussive clatter; “Your New Rod” turns “Flyrod” into an irregular heartbeat and ominous snoring.

Steve Albini prefaces “The Match Incident” with a long slice of audio verite that takes the listener from a street-side cigarette lighting to an upstairs apartment, collecting a beer before settling down in front of documentary on the wit and wisdom of Los Angeles Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda. The splutter of maltreated vinyl seeps through “Not Quite East Of The Ryan”, decorated with gentle hip-hop beats and jazzy samples. Jim O’Rourke, already a post-rock polymath even back in ’94, reduces “Initial Gesture Protraction” to little more than hum and buzz, although it’s no less entertaining for that, of course. Finally, “Cornpone Brunch Remix” closes the audio portion of the set with playful elasticity.

Over on the DVD, the footage accompanying “Salt The Skies” finds objects - pencils, furniture, cuddly toys – floating past like some gently demented evolution of “The Generation Game” snuggling up to that Sony Bravia advert that sent 250,000 coloured balls bouncing down the streets of San Francisco. Shorts for “Dear Grandma And Grandpa”, “Glass Museum” and “Four Day Interval” show real life on a lo-fi sample rate, all rolling oceans, Empire State Building visitors and snow-laden forests. “Seneca” models some primitive computer hardware, elderly astronomy animations and space mission footage. But really, how would you script a Tortoise video, given that the band’s message resides almost completely in the music? At least these examples are unlikely to override your own personal responses to the tracks.

Rather more fun are some live performances of various vintages, although even these are meticulously controlled, with nobody suddenly cutting loose at any point; the precisely interlocking nature of their music kinda forbids it. (The way that the two percussionists frequently perform facing each other, perpendicular to the audience, is a bit of a giveaway.) A 1996 Toronto appearance is filmed in smudgy bootleg quality black and white, intercut with clips of slow-moving buildings – music as architecture, perhaps? It culminates in a glorious, celebratory “Cornpone Brunch”, which breaks out in an approximation of colour. Compare this to a couple of tracks recorded three years later at a German jazz festival and it’s almost like encountering a different band. In these comfortably upholstered environs Tortoise’s music glistens rather than sweats: the hypnotic bolero of “Ten Day Interval” sounds far more intricate than ever it did on “TNT”, but the parched, Miles Davis-esque emissions of a guest trumpeter seem to add more in the way of clutter than colour. From the same gig, “Othello” is melodically relaxed but rhythmically restless, as might be expected with six hands on percussion duty. The joker in this particular pack, though, is a guest spot on childrens’ television show “Chic-A-Go-Go”, which finds the band disguised behind monkey masks whilst miming to “Seneca” with comic overenthusiasm: in hipster kids’ TV terms it has the measure of R.E.M. appearing on “Sesame Street”. The DVD is rounded out with a poster gallery, which is exactly that.

Unfortunately, though, although most of these 33 tracks fascinate whilst being listened to there’s little here that hooks in the head once the album’s been filed on the shelf. Even at their most frenetic and committed, tracks such as “Gamera” sound several steps removed from anything truly human and heartfelt, a trait that arguably has hindered the progress of the entire post-rock genre. Despite rounding up a substantial passel of Tortoise rarities “A Lazarus Taxon” is frustratingly incomplete, with, for example, the series of remix 12” singles that followed the “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” album remain unexplored here, even more disappointing when considering that the third CD in the set isn’t even half-filled. Nevertheless, like almost any album that extends much beyond 45 minutes these days, I find the commitment demanded by the entire box wearying; for all its good intentions, these tracks are far more digestible scattered amongst a random playlist.

Aerial M

11th Dream Day

Mushroom Vs. Bundy K. Brown Vs. Faust Vs. Gary Floyd

Papa M