Friday, November 23, 2012

I'd Love to Turn You On #69 - Tortoise - TNT

Sometime in the mid-1990s, amid the grunge/alternative explosion, something completely different emerged known as "post-rock."  This immediately became a case of "I can't define it but I know it when I hear it" for most who encountered the music.  Definitions have always been tricky.  I once read a description of post-rock as "using rock instruments to make music that is not rock," but that doesn't really work unless you consider the marimba a rock instrument.  Back in the 90s, if you recorded for the great Chicago label Thrill Jockey, you were probably post-rock, or at least labeled post-rock.  Tortoise was the best-known Thrill Jockey band of the time and, as a result, became the kings of post-rock.  Many consider 1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die to be their masterpiece and as great as that one is, my personal favorite is 1998's TNT.  This was the point where Tortoise began to incorporate electronic instrumentation much more prominently into their sound.  It was also their first album with guitarist Jeff Parker and last with multi-instrumentalist David Pajo..

The album opens with the title track and the first thing we hear are jazzy drums, reminiscent of Elvin Jones or Art Blakey.  A simple yet memorable guitar line chimes in and is repeated throughout the piece.  Slowly, more and more instruments are added, the sound getting fuller and fuller.  Also making an appearance here is cornet player Rob Mazurek who played with several Tortoise members in Isotope 217.  The propulsive "Swung From the Gutters" follows and then the absolutely gorgeous "Ten-Day Interval."  Multiple marimbas combine with piano in a piece that closely resembles classical minimalism.  "I Set My Face to the Hillside" moves in yet another direction, sounding like an outtake from a spaghetti western soundtrack.

The second half of the album is where electronic elements come into play even more.  "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazu Falls" has a title that recalls John Fahey but is actually one of the band’s more groove oriented tracks.  Several tracks toward the end all flow together and by the time we get to "Jetty" the band has developed a nice loungey vibe.  The closing track "Everglade" ends on a both a beautiful and majestic note.

I'll be honest, this is an album that's hard to put into words.  It really needs to be listened to.  It may not be typical of Tortoise or post-rock, but then again there is nothing typical about either band or genre.  It is what it is and what it is is one of the best albums of the 90s.
            - Adam Reshotko

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