I had a Tortoise marathon all day Saturday while I wrote/cleaned house: Gamera, Tortoise, Millions Now Living, TNT, Standards, and It's All Around You. I downloaded Standards and It's All Around You last week—the former I haven't heard since around when it came out in 2001, and the latter I've never heard. Should be interesting to hear them now. This is all partly in anticipation of their new record, Beacons of Ancestorship, and partly because my head has been so wrapped up in 90s post-rock lately—half nostalgia, half research.
I really haven't spent much time with Tortoise in the last eight or nine years, though for a long time I found their albums packed with epiphanies. It's interesting to hear them now, in chronological order. "Gamera" and "Cliff Dwellers' Society," their debut 12" is still an exciting record, and strongly hints at what was to come on their second full-length, Millions Now Living will Never Die. They're more layered than what the group did on their self-titled album, though I'd argue that the aesthetic decisions they made on Tortoise—to simply make a record based around a rock band's rhythm section—remain more unique, if only due to the simplicity of concept.
It was Millions, though, that has always been regarded as the big aesthetic leap for the band. When that record came out I remember everyone (including me) just freaking out for it, especially "Djed." It's still an outstanding track, as is much of the album. But time and distance have made it seem less other-worldly than I remember feeling at the time. TNT, too. I think it's me and not the records, but hearing some of these tracks now makes me much more keenly aware than I was back then of just how into their own record collections these guys were. It's a critique that's chased Tortoise for most of their career—much of their sound dabbles in dub here, drum and bass there, jazz here, Ennio Morricone and Steve Reich there. TNT especially—that album, more than the others, has a real jack-of-all-trades vibe. Not that that necessarily takes away from what the band was doing! It still adds up to something altogether different from everyone else. I can't imagine another band that has more fun, purely from a playing/jamming/writing perspective, then Tortoise must. (I'd like to think they enjoy it, at least. Sometimes songwriting can be excruciating.)
Hearing Standards and It's All Around You back to back—both ostensibly for the first time—is an interesting culmination of the afternoon's listening; perhaps it's only my fresh first impression, perhaps the lack of nostalgia brought to these two. They seem like two sides of one coin: Standards is a terrifically cohesive record; unlike the buffet of sounds and influences that is TNT and, to a lesser extent, Millions, Standards sounds like the band settled on what they wanted to sound like—it's Tortoise, not Tortoise's tastes. The group plays with confidence throughout, all seemingly focused on the same sonic end-goal. (Does that make it their best album? No, but it's still good.) It's All Around You, on the other hand, starts strong but quickly fades into a kind of pantomime, as if the band were trapped by what they thought they were supposed to sound like. (Mind you, my feelings on both of these records are based on one listen.) Hearing them back to back illustrates the fine line a band with a strong, unique aesthetic surely must walk (my recent posts on Low got at the same idea).
It's easy to get trapped by your own sound: these are the instruments we use (vibes!), this is the tempo, this is the frequency. Finding freedom of experimentation—or, barring that, unadulterated confidence and absence of laziness—gets harder and harder as a band makes more and more albums. I haven't heard Beacons yet, other than a couple tracks. It seems promising though; even if the group is to the point where they're content to walk that fine line, let's hope they know which side they're on.
In the meantime, here's a retrospective mix for you. Enjoy.