Three years ago in the Village Voice, British music writer Simon Reynolds coined the term "post-rock" as a catchall for a growing number of bands in the rock realm that were starting to experiment with the structures and vocabularies of jazz fusion, ambient music, and dub reggae. Quite a few Chicago groups figured into Reynolds's premise, which quickly gained currency with the rest of the music press. While none of those bands found the term apt enough to apply it to their own work, several--and in particular, Tortoise--soon found themselves held up as poster children for a post-rock "movement."
Reynolds's original definition was pretty broad to begin with, encompassing the retro space rock of Sabalon Glitz, the breezy art pop of the Sea and Cake, and the cerebral abstractions of Gastr del Sol. But in the intervening years, two things happened. The genre bending Reynolds saw as the exclusive domain of a few has become standard in pop music, in everything from Beck to the Chemical Brothers--so much so that his term is about as useful as "alternative rock." And those he implicated as founders of post-rock have been blamed for the failure of the daring escape from convention they were supposed to have been plotting.
Into this climate, two of those bands, Tortoise and Gastr del Sol, have just released new albums--their first work of the post-post-rock era. Both are the best records each band has made yet. But backlash was imminent: in the press release for Gastr's Camoufleur, Drag City's publicist mockingly anticipates the critics' reaction, describing the album as "a total sellout of the experimental ideas they began with."
In fact, reviews of Camoufleur have been favorable, if not plentiful. But criticism of Tortoise's new TNT (Thrill Jockey) has been harsh, surprisingly so for a band that critics couldn't gush enough about two years ago. Many reviews seem to respond as much to the imaginary standards of the imaginary genre Reynolds created as they do to what's on the record. "One review said that some songs on the new record touch on something like 'the atmospheric futuristic funk that Tortoise should be playing,' and almost all of the reviews are filled with quotes like that," says percussionist John Herndon.
Herndon could be thinking of Rob Michaels's review in the April issue of Spin, which says "the results sound micromanaged, never congealing into the propulsive booty-call that's lurking in their recessive genes." And while Jonathan Romney doesn't try to impose a creative agenda on the band like Michaels does, his review in England's Wire--historically an extremely enthusiastic supporter of both Tortoise and post-rock--is even more negative: "Tortoise...seems to be decanted from some particularly affectless encounter group."
"A lot of the criticisms that people are leveling against this record are way more applicable to the last one," says multi-instrumentalist John McEntire, who engineered TNT. "It wasn't as cohesive, and it wasn't as engaging in some ways." TNT certainly does exhibit considerably more follow-through than its predecessor, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the album that catapulted the band to post-rock stardom. A good chunk of that record sounds half-finished; pieces like "A Survey" and "Dear Grandma and Grandpa" are nice concepts but not much more. It's not that Tortoise has reverted to verse-chorus-verse, but most pieces on TNT are fleshed out, with idea piled strategically on idea. For instance, "Swung From the Gutters" applies warm horns, twittering electronic beats, plangent guitar and bass lines played in unison, and a splatter of backward tape to an elastic rhythm influenced by Can, while "I Set My Face to the Hillside" builds on the imaginary sound track of Millions' "Along the Banks of Rivers," mixing Morricone-esque guitar with soft-hued melodica, long and sorrowful violin lines, and gently shuffling rhythms in a gorgeous, evocative tune that could stand on its own in any context.
TNT is also Tortoise's first album to benefit from the participation of jazz guitarist Jeff Parker, who seems to have brought more blatant melodicism to the mix. Although it's slathered in frenetic drum 'n' bass rhythms, the elegant harmonies and lilting prettiness of his tune "Jetty" (done quite differently by the group Isotope 217, in which he plays with Tortoise's Herndon and Dan Bitney) reveals a new side of the group.
As the band prepares for up to six months of touring, it is also learning to operate without bassist Dave Pajo, who left after TNT was complete to concentrate on his own project, Aerial M. The other members chose not to replace him directly. "His shoes were a little too big to be filled by any one person," says McEntire, "so I think we are all trying to compensate for his loss in our own little ways." Tortoise will perform in Chicago at the end of its U.S. tour, in June.
As reported in this column back in September, Jim O'Rourke, who was not an original member of Gastr del Sol but who greatly expanded the territory the band covered during his tenure, quit after finishing Camoufleur last summer. Recently David Grubbs confirmed hints dropped by O'Rourke that there was quite a bit of personal tension between the two during the recording. "It was not a comfortable working process, but it yielded results that made the process worthwhile," he says. Grubbs likens that process to Gastr's most recent performances, where he and O'Rourke basically alternated solo pieces, but says "there were some basic ideas in play, such as shortening the material and coming up with a denser group sound."
An interest in the extremely dense arrangements of Van Dyke Parks, which also came into play on O'Rourke's solo Bad Timing last year, manifests itself throughout the album, but never so brilliantly as on "Each Dream Is an Example," where the trombone of Jeb Bishop, the violin of Maureen Loughnane, the skittering electronics of Oval's Markus Popp, and the gorgeous, spiraling, multitracked vocals of Edith Frost converge in the best song the Beach Boys never wrote. The inventive arrangement of "Black Horse" transforms the traditional Vietnamese folk song into a proggy folk rocker, while "Mouth Canyon" features O'Rourke taking a rare vocal turn over pretty, melancholy steel guitar, cornet, violin, and French horn.
Without O'Rourke, Grubbs is back to working on more skeletal material. Earlier this year he recorded an album of harmonium-reed duets with Swedish saxophonist Mats Gustafsson, and has begun recording a solo album for Drag City. He and Tortoise's McEntire also recently contributed to the forthcoming album by folk rocker Richard Buckner.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tortoise photo by C. Toliver.