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Tortoise - Beacons of Ancestorship

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Artist: Tortoise

Album: Beacons of Ancestorship

Label: Thrill Jockey

Review date: Jun. 15, 2009

Lester Bangs would’ve hated Tortoise. Asked to define good rock’n’roll in his last ever interview, Lester offered this semi-elegy: “I guess it’s just something that makes you feel alive. It’s just like, it’s something that’s human, and I think that most music today isn’t. And it’s like anything that I would want to listen to is made by human beings instead of computers and machines.” Tortoise, of course, does not play rock’n’roll, and they at times want to make their live playing appear as if it’s been made by a machine, in some kind of attempt at electronic sublimation. In yet another way, they fail to fit anyone’s mold of what a band, let alone a rock band, should be; the group, now almost two decades old, offers up very little in the way of backstory, drama, or even personnel and recording information. And one always wonders how much of a group they really are, since their ultra-clear, hyper-detailed sound is seemingly shaped by one man, percussionist and producer John McEntire.

But this ostensible detachment is at the core of Tortoise’s music. Graced with instrumental and studio virtuosity, they apply an endless reserve of tastefulness to their eclectic aesthetic, taking elements they find interesting from a spectrum of musical forms (dub, electronica and jazz most prominently) without ever aping them. This means they can get away with a tune (and title, it should be noted) like “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In,” the opener to Beacons of Ancestorship, their sixth full-length. Over the course of eight minutes, they weave in a big brawny beat, dub-heavy bass, a monster dance-floor-ready synth hook, a dub-space-like disintegration of the groove, multiple time signatures and a pulsing, minimalist-synth coda. It’s a complex recipe, and ther aren’t many groups that could pull it off.

For a group with such a broad knowledge of music history, though, it’s strangely difficult to actually hear the past in their music, this being both a positive and negative. The occasional glance backward is visible (the twisting, soaring lines and shifting sections of “Prepare Coffin,” say, wouldn’t be out of place in a Zappa piece from Hot Rats), but most of the time the music sounds sealed off, and if not hermetic, then at least isolated, unable to see past itself as a reference point. It describes its own boundaries – a sure marker of originality – but all too easily stays close to friendly confines. On each of Tortoise’s albums, you can always find pieces like “The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One” or “Minors.” On the former, guitarist Jeff Parker’s nocturnal melody works strange angles, but ultimately sounds too polite. The groove on “Minors” just feels stiff and generic. Their tastefulness can produce some wondrous moments, but also some pretty intense boredom.

Yet, it’s when Tortoise crosses these self-prescribed boundaries (and they always manage to do it at least a few times an album) that they really make a listener take notice. Rather than the longer, complex compositions, the four shortest tracks here are the most intriguing, as they compress Tortoise’s way of layering disparate ideas into brief, disorienting beatscapes: A second-line drum pulse gets abstracted on “Northern Something” and played against multiple buzzing basslines. On “Monument Six One Thousand,” an electro-funk bass throb and a melancholic guitar melody fight for your attention. A whole album of Tortoise doing this would blow more than a few minds.

Despite the surprises and the occasional blast of rawness, Beacons of Ancestorship wouldn’t have changed Lester’s mind about Tortoise, and if your mind’s made up about them, it won’t change yours. But changing minds isn’t what Tortoise is about. They are concerned about their world and their sound – what limits it, what expands it – and not much else. Some call that indifference, even arrogance. Some call it self-sufficiency, or even vision – you decide. Just don’t look to Tortoise for help.

By Matthew Wuethrich

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