Somnambule - Writing About Music

Tortoise ~ It’s All Around You

Tortoise. It’s all around you. Or so some would argue. They’re the sun around which any number of larger and smaller satellites orbit (Isotope 217, the Chicago Underground groupings and so on). Tortoise are blessed (damned?) with the appelation “post-rock innovators”. The coining of the term represented critical recognition of the redundance of sweaty old ‘Rawk’: time to bring intellect to the table and stimulate the beast’s tastebuds by feeding it new delicacies. It’s All Around You is album number five since the band’s formation ten years ago and the first since 2001’s Standards. Now that the listening public is awash with retrograde guitar bands Tortoise’s intelligence and musical open-mindedness could be viewed as more necessary than ever. Viewed in this light expectations may be running particularly high, at least in some quarters, for the group’s latest missive.

The opening, and title, track delivers that familiar Western (think High Noon) guitar sound - as signature perhaps as Aaron Copland’s fanfare and as American - followed closely by Tortoise’s similarly trademark vibraphone. The bass is so heavy that the amplifier needs to be checked to see whether the loudness setting is on (it isn’t). The music is warm-hearted, optimistic even, in a particularly American way. After all, that’s what the group have engaged with: the heritage of popular American music. When negotiating the encroachment of electronica, ambient, minimalism, etc upon rock the group have sought to achieve an ongoing rapprochment between such disparate musics. That assimilation is now arguably less self-conscious than in previous releases.

‘The Lithium Stiffs’ and ‘Crest’ are overdriven, queasy affairs, the former breathed upon by wordless vocals which sound as if they were artificially generated. Heavy without being ponderous, these songs are widescreen mini-epics shot in the sort of technicolour found in Douglas Sirk sunsets, Gone With The Wind, etc. At any moment Rock Hudson or Jane Wyman might enter the room... The album cover’s image of an over-saturated composite landscape complete with waterfalls, forests and nightlit cityscape seems somehow entirely fitting.

‘Dot/Eyes’ interrupts its predecessor to reveal a darker, more agitated heart beating within its gloomy breast. It’s like somebody has turned the lights low and stoked the fire up ‘til it’s started to spit. Gradually the music approaches nightmarish proportions and seems to grow larger than the room it’s playing in. If continued much longer it might suffocate listeners.

The patchwork experimentalism of Standards and in particular tracks like DJ’ed with their seemingly nonstop succession of different styles has been replaced by a more cohesive sound. Such consistency perhaps comes at the price of a less experimental edge and there are no great surprises or sudden leaps here. Instead It’s All Around You may be viewed as a mature collection of songs in Tortoise’s signature style. Listen too intently to this music and you may not hear it – as when something must be stared past to be seen. This album needs to be lived with to allow its qualities to become apparent. It’s a beguiling work, but one that I suspect some will love and others will leave.
Colin Buttimer
March 2004
Published by Absorb