Tortoise’s Grand Return
Tortoise — The Catastrophist (Thrill Jockey, 2016)
When I arrived at KZSU in 1998, Tortoise was ascendant. I was on the lookout for non-“jazz” items to add to my radio show, elements of rock or electronica that might blend well into an avant-jazz program, and Tortoise quickly caught my ear. It’s a well I went to several times.
I can’t say I really got acquainted with the band, though. I was aware of the connections to the Chicago jazz scene, especially the presence of guitarist Jeff Parker. But I didn’t take time to learn more; I didn’t even listen to complete albums of theirs.
So, I don’t have a full sense of comparison between The Catastrophist and Tortoise’s main body of work, which 1994 to 2009. With fresh ears, I’ll say The Catastrophist is an solid album of instrumentals, featuring a heavier layer of cartoony synths than I was expecting and a vibe that’s bouncy yet relaxing — it’s easygoing, but it certainly won’t put you to sleep.
Tortoise has a lot in common with a type of instrumental music that I tended to label “post-rock.” I don’t think that’s the right term, but anyway — I’m talking about low-key rock instrumentals built upon simple ostinatos (repeated riffs that serve as the backdrop for melody or soloing) and a calm demeanor. Dig up music from a band called 33.3, and you’ll see what I mean (and you can tell me if I’m using the term “post-rock” correctly).
On The Catastrophist, “Tesseract” has the kind of sound I remember. It isn’t easygoing or slow, but it feels soothing — a glossy layer of bass and some lush guitar chording.
The album’s most obvious detours are in the vocal tracks — an amusingly slow cover of “Rock On” and a sublime “Yonder Blue” — but I’d rather talk about the musical paths I wasn’t expecting. “Hot Coffee” has a funky soul-jazz sound that was a pleasant surprise. And “Shake Hands With Danger” has an appropriately dark air and some sinister melody, despite an overall bright sound.
What interested me in this album was, I admit, the novelty — it was neat to hear they’d gotten the band back together. But it also seemed like a nice chance to discover what they’d really been up to all those years, when I was only half-listening, and to see if I liked what they did. Success, on all counts.