then . . .
Break it down to its fundamental components, and music-making is a combination of two things, style and idea. The idea is the content, the style is the package. Bach, for example, wrote keyboard suites in both French and English styles which each have identifying characteristics. A contemporary example of this is the contents of The Dance Music Manual, a book which breaks downs the identifying features of a seemingly infinitely gradated array of styles.
The balance between styles and ideas is key, as style alone inevitably becomes solipsistic nihilism, and ideas without style have no means to communicate themselves. This is a balance that Tortoise, as single-handed inventors of a style, have had to navigate. They’ve done so with splendid success but also increasing difficulty. It’s a cliché that a band’s earlier work is the best, but one that is true enough in some instances, and in this case it’s descriptive and appropriate.
The new Tortoise release is “Beacons of Ancestorship,” their eighth full album (not including singles, compilations and remixes) since 1994, and it’s produced by the core group of multi-instrumentalists Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire and Jeff Parker. Musically, it’s skillful and polished, with intriguing moments and fascinating details. It’s an assured display of the style that makes Tortoise an excellent and important ensemble. Unfortunately, it’s only a display of style, a kind of demonstration what the idea of “Tortoise” without any effective musical ideas and it makes for a deeply disappointing experience. Tortoise used to play music, and now they craft it. The craftsmanship is exquisite; shapely, solid, skillful and subtle, but listening to the results is like looking at a diagram of a beautiful mechanical object, like a pocket-watch, rather than enjoying the real pleasure of feeling its weight and smoothness in the hand, watching the hands turn hypnotically to the unerringly satisfying chink of the mechanism. The watch has substance and purpose, and is a joy to see in action, while the diagram is a neatly executed set of lines and shapes, technically interesting and lifeless.
Something has happened to the band. Their mastery of styles and excellent musicianship used to be put in the service of making records that were fascinating to the ear, the head and the feet. Although their playing had identifiable elements of myriad genres and sub-genres, they were not merely dropping references to other music and bands in some kind of overly clever post-modern pastiche; they were creating fluid, complex original music, a synthesis of styles out of which burst Tortoise. Their run of records from the eponymous debut to “Standards” shows a development and expansion of ideas and great musical taste. It’s a real feat to produce instrumental pop music that sounds both familiar and unexpected, and the highest praise to say that no matter how many times one listens to these records they continually surprise, especially the great “TNT.”
Then something happened, and that’s a mystery. The 2006 collaboration with Bonnie “Prince” Billy, “The Brave And The Bold,” was a failure. The strangely popular Will Oldham is a limited and expressionless musician (or perhaps he deliberately cultivates an affectless style, with the same results), and his presence is like a ball and chain strapped to an athlete’s ankle; he weighs down the album. Tortoise’s arrangements try and bring new life to the music, while Oldham, lifeless, retards any and all possibilities. There is some interesting tension between the sound of the band trying to move in a direction, any direction, while the singer refuses to go along, but listening to the record is a frustrating and unpleasant experience. In context with their previous release, “It’s All Around You,” which sounds like the record of a band creating their own version of what they think ‘Tortoise’ sounds like, it appeared something worrisome was going on, a dissipation of ideas for which the imagined cure was self-referentiality. This trend is now cemented with the weak “Beacons of Ancestorship.” Style as a means to an end has been replaced with style as the end itself, and the tunes run along as an array of samples, a self-conscious exercise in demonstrating what the musicians can do. The effect is of demonstrating the ideas they have lost. There is a lot going on in the tracks, but something vital missing from the record as a whole; most of the music sounds like music-minus-one, capably crafted backing tracks in search of an idea. The opening ‘High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In’ starts promisingly, with a strong and supple beat and heavy funk bass line, but instead of adding a coherent layer onto this vamp the tune moves promiscuously to a dub style that manages to be both stiff and weak. That’s an unfortunate feature of the record, a real lack of rhythmic imagination and vitality from a band that used to excel in that. Yes, the new bass line is a variation on the initial one, but that demonstrates only cleverness, not intelligence.
While nothing else goes as wrong as that track, nothing really goes right either. ‘Penumbra’ tosses out the kind of quasi-cheesy pop riff that the band has been so good at taking apart and transforming . . . but then one realizes that they actually mean it. ‘The Fall of The Seven Diamonds Plus One’ is post-Morricone cliché and gives the disturbing impression that Tortoise is unaware that this is also a post-”The Big Gundown” era. It’s also, frankly, dull, sluggish music, a placeholder for the finished theme for whatever Western movie the music is imagining. The closing track, ‘Charteroak Foundation,’ is a précis of the sad state that Tortoise has developed into; stiff and dull rhythm, a riff that seems both unfinished and ill-considered, and a weak, unimaginative harmonic accompaniment to . . . nothing, actually. Tortoise has become their own cover band, and that’s a musical cul-de-sac they don’t seem to deserve, but seem also to be striving to earn.
now . . .