Back then, Tortoise appeared on comps like Headz 2 and Macro Dub Infection, surrounded by jungle, techno, and trip-hop artists. When the odd, oblong, bass-forward grooves of Tortoise dropped in 1994, Kurt Cobain had recently, uh, retired. Two years later, it was hard not to feel like the band's Millions Now Living Will Never Die-- and a billion other things-- had finally killed grunge dead. Premature and bullshit in retrospect, of course, but excuse us for getting excited.
So here we are a decade later with A Lazarus Taxon, a 3xCD/DVD box set collecting singles, B-sides, and remixes originally created between 1995 and 2001. Wrapped in beautiful grayscale, the box has a definite, if unfortunate, tombstone vibe. Tortoise continue to tour and release records, of course, but in many ways they remain emblematically tied to the mid- to late-1990s, a time when indie rock remixes were a real mind blower and everyone was scrimping for their own marimba.
In fact, A Lazarus Taxon is an inadvertent lesson in how indie rock has changed in the last 10 years. Onstage in 1996 on the DVD, the band locks into its intricate, multi-part music with the implacable faces of tenured calculus professors. The wide-eared listening habits Tortoise helped to foster remain active in 2006, but it's hard to imagine a sweaty, bearded Dan Bitney striding across the stage in a stained babydoll dress any more than John McEntire changing his name to Moonchild McFlowerpot or Koala Bear.
And though bookish indie heartthrobs can now make a mint singing about the Cook County chamber of commerce over Steve Reich pastiches, Tortoise offered no such easy ins. At their best Tortoise were either anthemic or hypnotic; the first disc of Lazarus opens with 1995's "Gamera", which hits the anthemic/hypnotic axis dead center and is still the band's high point and American post-rock's most epic 11 minutes.
"Gamera" begins with John Fahey-esque picking so intimate you can hear the squeak of fingers on the frets. A beat somewhere between the funky drummer break and Neu! builds and crests for a small eternity, finding room for both country twang and Edge-like harmonics. The bass modulates constantly between rhythm and melody, one of the band's favorite tricks. Much of Tortoise's material from this era has a slight drum'n'bass feel, twisted just enough to avoid dating itself. "The Source of Uncertainty" is dance music played on empty tin cans and Coke bottles dangling from twine, abandoning the good stuff kids go for like hooks and melody and drawing lines between then-current jungle's polyrhythmic motion and shit like Can, This Heat, and Miles' On the Corner. You know-- dance music you can't dance to.
Earlier singles like "Why We Fight" and "Whitewater", both from the same 1995 7", have the same spectral, late-night quality-- all muted xylophones and lonesome guitars and the hum of orange street lamps. Later tracks veer between pure electronica, outright jazz, and the band's most rocking moments. In between, 1998's "Madison Ave." and "Madison Area" turn out radically different versions of the same material, another favorite Tortoise trick, Jeff Parker's guitar melodies on one song becoming puddles of abstract color on another.
Tortoise were notoriously promiscuous with their own work, a very 90s philosophy that said just because a song had been finished didn't really mean it was "finished." The best of the box's versions is Nobukazu Takemura's remix of the title track from 1998's TNT. A kind of jazz-lite take on "Gamera's" krautrock groove thang-- complete with Rob Mazurek's watery, tremulous trumpet-- Takemura adds a glossy spray of digital sparkle, the difference between his "TNT" and Tortoise's earliest records being something like the difference between computer animation and a daguerreotype.
Lazarus also includes two typically bristling Autechre remixes, "To Day Retrieval" and "Adverse Camber", Rob Booth and Sean Brown applying their lateral, chattering machine logic to Tortoise's organic forward momentum. Missing in action: The whole of 1996's Remixed, featuring two astounding Oval remixes where Markus Popp and crew shatter Tortoise into a million pieces and then refashion the shards into wind chimes.
The third disc is given over to the whole of the band's long out-of-print 1995 remix EP Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters, the title of which is perfectly chosen. John McEntire's "Alcohall" is a series of cymbal crashes, tumbles on his tom toms, stereopanning snare cracks, drumrolls, and cowbell fed through an echo chamber. (There's also some wooshy stuff in the background, as was the style at the time.)
Some of the tracks aren't so big on the "resolutions." Rick Brown's "Your New Rod" isolates a Tortoise bass twang and irregularly repeats it over a drum machine that sounds like all sorts of leaves and debris would fall out if you shook it. Casey Rice's "Cobwebbed" sounds a bit like an Aphex circa Selected Ambient Works II DAT discovered a few decades later in a storage unit out by the highway.
But it's also on RRAC that Tortoise most live up to Chang's hip-hop take. "Not Quite East of the Ryan", by Bundy K. Brown, features not only a hard, shuffling breakbeat, but Minnie Ripperton and A Tribe Called Quest samples, stabbing funk guitar, echoing horns weaving through the mix. Only the vibes, which sound more Bobby Hutcherson than Pete Rock, would keep an enterprising DJ from throwing an a capella on top. The bonus is a previously lost Mike Watt remix of "Cornpone Brunch" that doubles the already doubly bass heavy Tortoise sound.
Aside from disc three, the contents of A Lazarus Taxon are chronologically jumbled, but the DVD provides an inadvertent trajectory, the stern, black-and-white footage from UK rock toilets circa Millions Now Living eventually giving way to color clips of the band performing a big jazz/world music style festival, the kind of thing where men unashamedly wear fanny packs. There's also a great TV segment with the band performing (miming?) "Seneca" while dressed in matching Devo-style janitor's suits and monkey masks for an audience of grade schoolers, lest anyone claim they lacked a sense of humor.
Maybe it's more generous to think of this box set less as a tombstone than as a time capsule. It's thankfully a little early for 90s nostalgia, and it's also hard to imagine today's Sufjan Stevens or Clap Your Hands fans having much time for a band (wrongly) tagged as "too intellectual" or "too austere" even in its heyday. Indie fashion may have passed them by-- happens to everyone, and many people do their best work out of the spotlight-- but Tortoise are still a great band. A Lazarus Taxon might be the best album they never released.
-Jess Harvell, August 11, 2006
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