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April 16, 2004

Tortoise makes space-age bachelor-pad jazz for the discerning listner

Why does Chicago make the music it does? Is it something in the water (or Old Style, as we like to call it), or possibly in the hot dogs?

I was ruminating a bit on that particular train of thought the other day while cleaning, a process which usually consists of me sifting through the various local releases past and present that have piled up in my ramshackle apartment. Never being much of a homebody (my mother prays daily to several different saints in the hopes that I'll eventually discover what a mop is for), I muttered "to hell with the cleaning" after the first five minutes, then turned my attention to the jumble of records, tapes, and CDs in front of me. For the next few days, I came home right from work and went straight into my room, hellbent on listening to everything, from Chess Records' blues sides to the abrasive grind of the Jesus Lizard and Big Black, and on through the new Tortoise album.

I must confess that I thought I had the Second City sussed. Coming from the desolate Reagan-blighted hills of the Pittsburgh area, I believed that Chicago was a kindred town—a tough blue-collar city whose soundscape and real estate were both hard-bitten and splintery. Muddy Waters and his brethren at Chess Records spat raw blues and heartache through bruised lips, while the rabid, abrasive Chi-Town sound that Steve Albini crafted for the aforementioned Big Black and Jesus Lizard burned and shattered like a smashed flashbulb. Toughness. Grit. Disappointment and regret. Not too cheery, but at least it seemed like a bona fide pattern, a fat little burro that I could pin my little theoretical tail onto.

All was going well until I popped in It's All Around You, Tortoise's new album, and watched my pretty little theory promptly implode.

Featuring members from some of the most critically acclaimed and quintessentially Chicago bands, Tortoise are an all-star combo of sorts. Having released records in various incarnations since 1994, the current lineup features the brilliant and erratic young guitarist Jeff Parker (who was recently named a "Talent Deserving Wider Recognition" by the writers of the jazz bible Downbeat), as well as members of such legendary Chicago groups as the Mekons, the Vandermark Five, Underground Chicago, and Sea and Cake. Last on the critical radar (for their skewed take on jazz standards on 2001's aptly-named Standards), Tortoise's new record reveals their formidable musical skills in a more experimental setting.

Released on the local Thrill Jockey label, It's All Around You consists of 10 tracks of space-age bachelor-pad jazz with a noisy art-punk chaser, a combination that creates a sound completely unlike anything else I've ever heard. Songs that start out as lush sonic landscapes—dotted with herds of xylophones, flocks of mellow electric pianos, and Parker's ringing guitar—suddenly veer into brief bursts of noisy feedback and shuddering overtones. Rhythms shift and stutter, abruptly dropping from pounding drives into slinky grooves. This record's got it all, folks, and in ways I'd never anticipate—even as a connoisseur of the strange and unusual.

And yet, for all this talk about the uniqueness of It's All Around You, the record is filled with winks and nods towards the great luminaries in Chicago's past. The searing electronics that propel the edgy "Dot/Eyes" and "Salt the Skies" are reminiscent of Steve Albini's production work (coincidently enough, he's a big fan). Furthermore, the slick jazz phrasing of the title track calls to mind the long-gone era of great South Side jazz clubs, and there's even a hint of that old Chess Records sound in "Crest" and "Unknown." Tortoise not only deserve to be commended for managing to add a sizable chunk of Chicago's musical heritage to the musical mix, but for forbidding the influences from taking priority over the music at hand. It's a rare band that can marry angry noise with gentle sophistication and sound like neither.

One of the biggest pitfalls faced by instrumental bands is the tendency to painfully drag songs past the limits of human endurance like a medieval dungeon master working the rack. Fortunately, Tortoise avoids this problem by keeping every song well under the five-minute mark. Most tracks clock in at three minutes or less. It's a refreshing change of pace for a genre that has an unfortunate tendency to give rise to pretentious blowhards.

It's All Around You is an excellent album, perfectly suited for throwing into your car stereo and randomly driving around Chicago late at night as you search for that mythical thread that holds all of Chicago together. And though they may not help you understand where all this insane-yet-distinctly-Chicago music comes from, Tortoise makes sure you'll at least enjoy trying.