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Thrill Jockey, 1994
Eclectic instrumental rockers Tortoise came up with a stylish, distinctive sound on their eponymous debut, and I think they knew it. With two (melodic and bassy) bass players, itchy out-of-kilter drumming, jazz flourishes and a crisp production, it's almost too self consciously cool. Their bare, dusty arrangements avoid prettiness, and they have an urban aloofness that evokes midnight jamming in deserted warehouses.
It's the deliberate subtlety that comes across as smug to me. Like the clockwork, repeated patterns on "Magnet Pulls Through" with pointy interjections from the low bass. On "Night Air", with its harmonica sneering and muttering voice samples, it sounds like they have a middle finger permanently raised. Most infuriating is "Spiderwebbed", which manages to add variety to its gnawingly repetitive high-bass refrain over eight minutes by the most subtle tweaks in its percussion pattern. Infuriating, but I realise it's good. It's almost a relief after all that timing perfection and studio polish there actually is something to rationally criticise on "Flyrod", which is too aimless in its guitar and high-bass noodling.
The album also has some straightforwardly engaging jazz-rock moments. "Ry Cooder" a vibraphone rocks back and forth over a low bass loop, sometimes breaking out into cool jamming. "Cornpone Brunch" is a nice upbeat piece of fusion for a finale. At the other extreme of prettiness there's the dusty and dry "Onions Wrapped in Rubber". This is in that eerie minimalist style of early Aphex Twin, all spooky ambient haze, ultra-quiet electronic glitches and a somewhat overdone ear-itching reverb. "Second Story Island" is more classic ambient, spacious bass splashes over floaty fuzz, like something by Sylvian and Fripp. Despite the calculated feel, the album is a distinctive statement, which is just what's needed to launch a new band.
October 28, 2005