Of all the jam bands that ever provoked dancing in the aisles, Tortoise are the least interested in a pop song's classic arc of development. A guitarist and a vibraphonist pair up to play a melody, then just drop it as if stricken catatonic; songs make right turns without revisiting the abandoned roads. When the beat gets doubled or tripled, don't mistake it for a crescendo: The payoffs of a Santana or an Allman Brothers Band, let alone a Stereolab, are not forthcoming. Equally club groovers and admirers of the who-cares-if-you-listen? modern-music aesthetic, Tortoise create an irresolute feeling, the bizarro flip side of goal-oriented pop. It's music of multiple options, of too many records to listen to.
But where 1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die was full of sluggish content that didn't live up to its formal ideas, TNT reaches the body and engages the mind. The superior conception by engineer and drummer John McEntire a mixture of jamming, electronics and extensive post-editing has dissolved Millions' lumpy feeling. It sounds as though Tortoise can now hear their own music through the clean filter of inspiration rather than through the anxiety of trying to be original; accordingly, their beloved sources from pop's secret histories come through more clearly Steve Reich's marimba rhythms, dub's sonic teasing, Can's mesmerizing locomotion, Ennio Morricone's rugged surf-guitar melodies. The record has masterful change-ups and subtle alterings of sound; McEntire mixes upside down, with bass eclipsing guitar eclipsing organ. TNT also adds new instruments to the band's palette: guitar, cornet, cello, bassoon, violin and trombone. These are just timbral colors, not soloists.
Despite traceable elements, the result is an album that sounds like no one else's. (Except for Stereolab's Dots and Loops, to which TNT's last quarter bears a strong resemblance; the reason is McEntire, who engineered both.) Tortoise remain a strange animal, a jam band slung between studio and stage that outlaws improvisation. TNT meanders, but it's a meandering expertly defined by the editing razor. (RS 784)
(Posted: Mar 23, 1998)
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