Thrill Jockey, 2001
On their fourth album, the studio-savvy post-rockers start to dirty up the intricate jazz-leaning sound that they refined on "TNT". It's infuriating, as because it's Tortoise, I get the sense that it's as calculatedly dirty as their others were clean. As if they sat in the studio and clinically turned the distortion up to 10.912 on the bass drum, and 11.134 on the snare. They can't win!
Though there's only a smattering of dirt. Their sound is still woven from casually cool fragments of melodies and precise percussion. It's in the spirit of jazz, but it never actually sounds like jazz, and is as eclectic as their post-rock label suggests. Take for example on "Seneca" where a proggy cascade of distorted drums turns rapidly into a thumping dance beat, then a casual jazz melody takes over. They show their usual knack for pretty textures, such as the gently stuttering guitar of "Firefly". Plus lots of delicate tuned percussion, which is used with care among the multilayered tangles of "Eros". Sometimes their throwaway melodies lean too far towards the style of TV jingles, although if I was a TV producer I'd be happy with such a hip act scoring my show. The most pleasing moment is "Monica", which flaunts its early-90s big dance strings with pride, and swaps a little twisty refrain between squirming keyboards and bass.
They're as precise and achingly cool as ever, but with this album, they're starting to leave me cold for the first time. I can focus on individual bits of music, and admire their techy and rhythmic imagination, but as a whole it does little to grab me emotionally, no matter how many times I listen. I think it's just that the inspiration is missing from the tunes, there's nothing fundamentally different about their sound.
May 31, 2006