As a testament to Tortoise's sly studio mastery, it's almost impossible
pinpoint where the cold, mechanical, programmed drum beats stop and
the warmer, human polyrhythms start during the jazz/jungle track "Jetty"
the Chicago post-rock combo's upcoming album TNT (March 10).
The track is the third part of a three-song suite that begins with the
long-windedly titled "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ and Beethoven There Were
Women and Men." The opening portion of the suite begins with programmed
machine beats and then segues into a classical guitar segment and back
beats, all while flirting with techno-dance rhythms on the two-minute
interim piece, "Almost Always Is Nearly Enough." All in all, it is
Tortoise: a hint of one thing, then a strong dose of just the opposite
On their third full-length album, the group, which now also features
guitarist Jeff Parker of the Chicago Underground Orchestra and the New
Horizons Ensemble, in addition to bassists Douglas McCombs and Dave
drummer/vibes player John Herndon and drummers/keyboardists Dan Bitney
John McEntire, expand the already far-reaching scope of 1996's
Now Living Will Never Die with the addition of strings, muted brass
a healthy dose of skittering, jungly beats.
Recorded at their own Soma Studios in Chicago, the 12-track album opens
with the dusty-sounding drums of the title track, reminiscent of an old
Blue Note jazz album, slowly building into a wave-like thrust of
overlapping bass guitars and warped voices. "TNT" lays out the classic
Tortoise style, which, like the push-and-pull of grunge pioneers
whisper-to-squall dynamics, is built upon a slow climb to a peak musical
rush, back into another slow exit. In Tortoise's case, however, that
can take many subtle turns along the way, as in the schizophrenic
The song repeatedly threatens to mutate into a straight-ahead techno-y
track, only to switch up the frantic beats in unexpected directions
delivering the regimented drum breaks dance club-goers have come to
As on Tortoise's previous albums, TNT is best heard on
"Swing From the Gutters" features ping-ponging, skittering drums phasing
back and forth over abstract ambient beats and electric piano, while a
close listen to "The Equator" will reveal bird-like sound effects and
whale-call-like guitars bubbling under in the mix.
Also like Millions, at times TNT sounds like a spooky
soundtrack to a film that doesn't exist. The chill-inducing "Tubular
Bells"-like vibes of "Ten-Day Interval," which eventually breaks down
the sound of just a warm piano groove and the shouts of robotic children
playing outside, is as much a soundtrack to a noirish thriller as "I Set
Face to the Hillside" is incidental music for a non-existent Italian
The latter song, which opens with pseudo-flamenco acoustic guitars and
mutates into a spooky melodica-and-tambourine groove, sets the tone for
"The Suspension Bridge At Iguazu Falls," just two songs later, which
explodes into a polyphonic, world music drum-and-vibraphone jam that
easily unspool behind a disturbing nature documentary.
Also included on the album are "A Simple Way to Go Faster Than Light
Does Not Work," on which the band settles into the unique space it
between avant-jazz and electronic music, and the album-closing, rumbling
storm of "Everglade." [Mon., Feb. 16, 1998, 9 a.m.