Monday, May 18, 2009

Album Review: Tortoise- "Beacons of Ancestorship"

As I get older and the engine that powers my raw cognitive skills goes into decline, I've noticed a certain mental artifact increase in frequency. I often immediately misread items to humorous effect. My Facebook friends will probably attest to this. So if you are like me, please be advised that Tortoise's new album is not called "Bacon of Ancestorship."

I have to preface this with the fact that I don't really know much about Tortoise, and have not kept up on them as a band. To the best of my recollection I had heard a few of their tracks years ago but could not remember that bit distinctly. Here and there, though, I kept coming across references to them. People mention them in craigslist musicians wanted ads, they are a supposedly meaningful benchmark in music reviews, and a friend of mine said that some of my band's instrumentals sounded like "Tortoise through a beat box." I've since learned that that was quite the compliment, and all in all I have been very excited to check the real deal out. So, after my review of "More" (by Thrill Jockey labelmates Double Dagger) when I was informed that the next release down the pike from TJ would be the new Tortoise, I had to snap it up.

Now, there is something to be said for caution in expecting too much. You don't want to get disappointed, and with Tortoise you're also dealing with a band that has been liberally tarred with the 'post-rock' brush. Gentleman blogger Eriq Nelson and I had a discussion on this very topic, and I can think of no better way to express the low-down than to quote his very own eloquence: "'s strange that any term so broad in it's scope has become familiar and formulaic as "post-rock". It defied conception. The term itself allows for limitless possibility, but ends up being applied more like post-Mogwai. It saddens me greatly." So with that in mind I jumped right in...

...and found to my great surprise that Tortoise was not even close to what I would describe as 'post-anything' at all, but rather, straight up PROG ROCK. Good old fashioned Weather Report meets Gabriel-era Genesis meets who knows. I don't believe this is just a result of the vintage synths present, either. It's the consummate musicianship, the rich variety of sound textures and dynamics, and the deep reverence for their source music, in this case rhythmic jazz. Then of course there is the esoteric, and it's right from the get-go. The title of the lead track "High Class Slim Came Floatin In" namechecks an obscure Billy Gibbons composition, which I was proud to be able to indentify sans Intarweb. Much like ZZ Top, a band vastly underrated for their progressive contributions to the blues rock genre, this song careens all over the place in a savage and exuberant manner, setting the tone for an album of great inventiveness. Again, the playing is top knotch, and that's good. Tortoise seems to be known for their experiments with rhythm, and for a band without any vocals to speak of, a listener might become bored hearing hackneyed attempts to 'experiment' where so many visionaries have already gone before. Tortoise has no such problem.

Indeed, with such captivating music, the average person's only complaint might be that the album passes too quickly, which is certainly no complaint at all. My one quibble was that there was a noticeable amount of distortion when all the instruments started really going for it at once. If this were an intentional insertion of some modern lo-fi, it really clashes with the prog aesthetic that seems to be the dominant one. If it's unintentional, well, that's a stumper with all the talent (and recording expertise) involved. This did nothing to decrease my enjoyment of the album as soon as I was out of reviewer mode, though, and I would highly recommend this album to anyone. It aspires to the same sort of genre-spanning tentacular greatness of albums like "Heavy Weather," "Aja," and "Selling England By The Pound." Whether Tortoise's modern spin lands their disc in with these, only time will tell.

"Beacons of Ancestorship" is out June 23rd on Thrill Jockey.


Eriq Nelson said...

I'm starting to think that Thrill Jockey owns my ears for next few years. They're reminding me of Sub-Pop not so much in their selection, but the quality of their artists. I'm really looking forward to hearing this record, it sounds like the kind of "full meal" record that takes up all of your mental space when you start listening.

Goldie Davich said...

I got all excited with the Eriq quote and then you said prog rock...

i will check it out because i am a good girl!

Ben Meyercord said...

Track two is sooooo bomb.

Eriq Nelson said...


Goldie Davich said...

i want bacon.

so my previous comment was based on the fact that i was stoned and when you said prog rock I got Emerson Lake and Palmer stuck in my head!

Anonymous said...

It's crazy...when I first got my hands on an advance copy I drooled with anticipation - as Tortoise is my favorite band, period.

The sound on the album is so inspired in parts, and so mind-numbingly uninspired in others. Gigantes is by far the highlight for me. And "High Class" is another a close second (followed by Charteroak Foundation. But, beyond that, it's a dissapointment. What's weird is that the album as a whole makes me smile to hear that they've really tried to take a bolder, and more modern stance. That's difficult because they've always sounded modern. So I'm disspointed in the number of mediocre songs on the album, but the record still sounds intriguing. I can't wait for the follow-up 7-inchers to be released shortly after. Hopefully the band kept some gems for those, because there surely aren't many on the new album.

Goldie Davich said...

Anonymous! How come you don't have a blogger ID? You are leaving great comments.

Won't you come play with us and give us a name to call you by?

Thanks for stopping by and hanging out!

Yours Sincerely,
Goldie Davich

Anonymous said...

My mother named me anonymous. Nah... just call me "birch". I was anxious to share my take on the new tortoise album even though it hasn't been technically released yet....your blog came up in the search results so here I am.

Goldie Davich said...

Can't you just sign in as Birch? If you want to have an Alias that's fine. We don't have to know who you "really" are.

Are you afraid that they will track you down and kill you because you got an advanced copy? I don't think the label has time to.

You are a well spoken, interesting music fan. Why not let people have the chance to take you seriously? By giving yourself a name we have a new friend here.

I hope you consider my request.

Thank you for stopping by!

Goldie Davich