Tortoise

Tortoise

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An album that not only set the tone for the new Chicago prog rock, but also cemented the musical niche for Thrill Jockey Records. Here, multi-instrumentalists John McEntire, Dan Bitney, John Herdon, Douglas McCombs, and Bundy K. Brown share equal responsibility and trust in each other, pouring out a thick stew of meditative grooves, light production experiments, and rusty guitar-string ambience -- the likes of which have rarely sounded so approachable, but this is not to say the album is a sellout leap into commercialism. There are a couple head scratchers and murky moments that fail to make much of an impact, but the quintet have spun such a rich web of mood and personality that any fall from grace barely changes altitude. Steady frontman McEntire wades confidently through uncharted waters, and his strength as a producer keeps a few odd moments from sinking. Tortoise sounds like a dark and wonderful garage full of dusty instruments. It's like looking at Avedon photographs -- the crevices and quirky imperfections are so richly explored that they become things of beauty. Disjointed twangy guitar riffs, distant harmonic overtones, bass mumblings, and a heartbeat make up tracks like "Flyrod," and "Ry Cooder" ebbs and flows organically through multiple key changes, tempos, and moods: foreboding, tense, plodding, explosive, hip, jazzy, cool, and funky (a signature piece for the band). "Cornpone Bunch" briefly tips its hat to the Who before unraveling a roll-the-credits finale to the disc: a bittersweet dialogue between bass, vibes, and drums than builds wonderfully to a close. The modest success of this CD proved to be a launching pad for several offshoot projects (several of which included founding members of this band), like Directions in Music, Isotope 217, Trans Am, Rome, and the Sea and Cake. In subsequent releases, Tortoise evolved to be a collective rather than a set roster of players. The ground broken apart by this solid debut would be tilled and cultivated by their outstanding follow-up Millions Now Living Will Never Die. Roll the dice for either album; you can't lose.

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