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As anyone in possession of a Franz Ferdinand or TV on the Radio disc ought to know, indie hype, like fame, is fleeting—only more so. Though Tortoise is certainly not the most tragic example of the phenomenon, the all-instrumental Chicago act has found itself on the wrong side of the hipoisie buzz. A recent e-mail to a friend regarding the quintet’s fifth and latest full-length, It’s All Around You, yielded a terse “No interest.” The dearth of mailing-list chatter aside, even Tortoise’s own Dan Bitney is downplaying anticipation: “I don’t expect that this record will blow us up,” the multi-instrumentalist said in the March issue of electronic-music magazine XLR8R.
It’s all somewhat anticlimactic for a band that played no small part in jump-starting the genre-blurring postrock movement, a band that briefly made electric guitars uncool and had the underground anxiously awaiting its every remix 12-inch and tour-only single. It wasn’t so long ago, really, that L.A. music retailer Peter Taylor offered this summation of Tortoise’s mid-to-late-’90s pre-eminence in the pages of Billboard: “They’re the shit right now.”
Of course, hype followers only care about right now—and right now has a way of becoming “back in the day.” But no matter: There’s been plenty of artistic evolution in Tortoise’s 10-year history, yet there’s really been no correlation between listener interest and album quality. The band may never make a more important record than its dubby, guitar-free debut, 1994’s Tortoise, but it has definitely made better records than its third and best-selling title, 1998’s studied and
bland TNT, which has sold 100,000 copies worldwide.
It’s All Around You will likely have neither the subcultural impact of the former nor the sales numbers of the latter. But out of all of Tortoise’s recordings, the guitar- and vibes-heavy new disc is surely the most all-encompassing: an album that plays like a sampling of the band’s discography to date. It gives us the basscentric minimalism of the first album (“Unknown”), the soft-focus art-rock of 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die (“On the Chin”), the Weather Channel–worthy smooth jazz of TNT (“The Lithium Stiffs”), and the beat-heavy jazz-punk of 2001’s Standards (“Dot/Eyes”).
But You is more than just past-tense Tortoise. “Crest,” with its Yes-like synth swells and harpsichord pulse straight outta the Days of Our Lives theme, is symphonic and romantic like nothing these manly men have done before. Yet it still sounds like Tortoise. So does the album’s final track, “Salt the Skies”—which is kind of amazing given its stressed-out punk beat, raggedy guitar riffing, and free-noise finale. It’s the group’s heaviest moment yet, but not one it would have been incapable of creating before.
More important, these extremes make sense occupying space on the same album. Some of that has to do with You’s sequencing, which gradually shifts from delicacy to aggression, but there’s also a clearer sense of identity at play. Tortoise has long been guilty of wearing its members’ record collections on its collective sleeve, and parts of Millions and (especially) TNT came closer to plagiary than homage. Sure, You still has its nods here and there: to Ennio Morricone, with the spaghetti-western riff at the beginning of the title track; to Steve Reich, with the gamelan vibes at the end of “Stretch (You Are All Right)”; and to Fela Kuti, with the Afrofunk beat underscoring “Five Too Many.” But the group’s obvious debts have never been as few and far between.
Of course, this development will likely be lost on an indie audience that prizes the next biggish thing above all else. You simply exists in a different environment from the first few Tortoise records: Though hipsters and industry hacks alike were questioning the health of rock a decade back, no one is doing so now. Actually, in today’s revivalist climate, Tortoise’s cerebral melodies, jazz chops, and multilateralist influences actually seem kind of quaint, in a way that’s just so late-20th-century. That suggests a question: Are these guys interesting only if we think rock ’n’ roll is about to kick the bucket? Or are they just victims of their own early success? Either option is kind of sad, really: It’s All Around You is Tortoise’s most Tortoise-like statement, the sound of the band getting comfortable with itself. It’s too bad no one seems to be listening anymore.
Like Tortoise, London’s Squarepusher rose to indie prominence at the ass end of grunge, releasing its first full-length, 1996’s Feed Me Weird Things, just months before Prodigy and the Chemical Brothers broke on MTV. And both bands have demonstrated very little interest in vocals. But Squarepusher’s music is seldom as easy on the ol’ eardrums as Tortoise’s. 1997’s sorta-breakout Hard Normal Daddy—which reportedly sold in almost-TNT quantities—matched cheesy jazz-fusion melodies with layer upon layer (upon layer…) of recklessly fast rhythms that seemed to skid out of control almost as often as they locked into discernible grooves. Fans called it drill ’n’ bass; Squarepusher prime mover Tom Jenkinson called it “brutality.”
Though said brutality soon gave way to full-on electric jazz, 1998’s Music Is Rotted One Note was every bit as abstract as Squarepusher’s techno records. Sounding not dissimilar to, say, electric Miles or randomized British beard-bop (see: mid-period Soft Machine and Robert Wyatt’s End of an Ear), the sequencer-free Music worked like a sonic analog to William Burroughs’ cutups: Multi-instrumentalist Jenkinson composed the songs—if you can call them that—with either a razor blade or a mouse, scrambling his live workouts into blissfully funky examples of dysfunction.
The 80-minute Ultravisitor, Squarepusher’s fifth and latest full-length, should please and disappoint fans of both modes. Opening with the skittery drumming and squiggly synthesizers of the title track, the album initially harks back to Jenkinson’s krunkwerk of olde. But from the end of that song on in, there are long stretches between Ultravisitor’s handful of beat-driven electronica tracks (“Menelec,” “50 Cycles,” and “District Line II”). This gives Jenkinson plenty of room for his DIY jazz: “Iambic 9 Poetry” reimagines Herbie Hancock for the chill-out generation, “Circlewave” pays tribute to both Jimmy Smith and Procol Harum, and “Tetra-Sync” exhumes Jaco Pastorius, gets him high, and plugs his fretless into a Pac-Man machine.
Ultravisitor’s lack of straight-up electronica also allows Jenkinson space for one of the worst excesses of double-album expansiveness: unaccompanied solos. That’s the bad news. The good news is you might never notice them: The bass improvisations “I Fulcrum,” “C-Town Smash,” and “An Arched Pathway” are all electronically tweaked and computer-warped into something almost classical, popping and burping and bleeping forth like Stockhausen broadcast from Planet Bootsy. And the bass compositions “Andrei” and the album-closing “Every Day I Love” both sound like honest-to-goodness Renaissance-faire guitar pieces—just tuned way the heck down.
All these styles might seem too disparate for cohesion, but somehow it all just flows: Ultravisitor’s overall effect is third-eye-opening: It’s a modern-day psych record that is less suited for parties than for beer-wasted headphone listening. The mainstreaming of electronica may have briefly caught Jenkinson in its trawl, but Ultravisitor is the best proof that he doesn’t belong. It might be indie suicide, as well—after all, where’s the audience for a techno double album that contains hardly any techno? Of course, nothing about Jenkinson’s career suggests that he gives a damn: Like Tortoise, he’s clearly in it for the long haul, no matter how short-lived the hype. CP
Tortoise performs at 10:30 p.m. Saturday, April 24, at the 9:30 Club, 815 V St. NW; for more information, call (202) 393-0930. Squarepusher performs at 8:30 p.m. Tuesday, April 27, at the Black Cat, 1811 14th St. NW; for more information, call (202) 667-7960.