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Feature Thu Aug 24 2006

A Lazarus Taxon: A Peek in Tortoise's Closet

It is a rare thing indeed to be able to lay claim to the birth of a genre. When Chicago's Tortoise started to gain a wide audience in the mid '90s, they were doing just that. Often pigeonholed as "post-rock," Tortoise's multi-layered songs are precision crafted from a wide assortment of off-the-beaten track styles. Bass and horn lines owe a debt to classic dub. Subtle layering and loops pay homage to Stephen Reich. There is the angular composition of Can, and the cool of avant jazz. Somehow, out of a tangle of seemingly diverse styles, Tortoise made something new, and in many ways, more accessible than its diverse roots.

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The nucleus of Tortoise came together in 1988, when Doug McCombs, of Eleventh Dream Day, began playing with John Herndon. By 1992, with the addition of members Bundy K. Brown and John McEntire of Bastro, the project had adopted the Tortoise moniker and released 7"s on both Thrill Jockey and Torsion music. After adding Dan Bitney, the group released their self-titled debut on Chicago's Thrill Jockey in 1994. The band lost Bundy, but quickly found David Pajo, who rounded out the lineup for the recording of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, which was released in 1996. The critically acclaimed Millions served to solidify their reputation. The group toured throughout the late '90s and released the full length TNT in 1998, a collaboration with The Ex called In the Fishtank in 1999, and the LP Standards in 2001. The band slowed a bit, with members involved in other Chicago-based projects such as Isotope 217, The Chicago Underground Duo, The Sea and Cake, and Brokeback. Tortoise has since released the full-length It's All Around You, and a collaboration with Will Oldham called The Brave and the Bold.

After over a decade at the helm of the underground music scene in Chicago, this week Tortoise released the box set A Lazarus Taxon on Thrill Jockey Records. This three disc/one DVD set is anchored by disc three, a re-release of the long out of print Rhythms, Resolutions, & Clusters. This 1995 album enlisted a variety of remixers, working with the material on the band's debut, and helped launch the rock-remix as a viable proposition. The remaining two discs are a chronological jumble of singles from foreign releases, tour EP's, compilations and the like. Almost none of this stuff is new or unreleased (with the notable exception of a Mike Watt remix added to the RR&C disc, but to acquire it would require a fetishists dedication, and a sizeable investment. As such, A Lazarus Taxon serves well as a general survey of the band's work for the neophyte, or as a collection-completer for those already sold.

Some of the highlights from the box set include Gamera from the 1995 EP of the same name. The song builds slowly from subtle acoustic guitar to a psychedelic pastiche that could have been lifted from a late '90s Phish performance. Pieces such as Didjeridoo start like drum 'n' bass tunes, then shoot off into Can-like musings. The TNT Takemura Remix highlights the value of the raw material in the hands of the remixer as the horns and vibes fold over and over repeatedly, creating a Stephen Reich-like loop of sound that builds and changes slowly over time. As You Said is a fittingly bleak take on an obscure Joy Division tune. CTA presents a viscous, warped reinterpretation of the perky Blackbird, demonstrating how Tortoise is apt to chase its own tail, providing two entirely different takes on the same material.

Disc three features the remixing skills of members such as John McEntire and Bundy K. Brown, as well as punk luminaries such as Steve Albini. McEntire's Alcohall, a remix of On Noble from the band's debut, is an echo-y clatter of drums and cymbals, while Your New Rod seems like the incidental music to a never-made Sergio Leone horror film. The album wraps up with the bass heavy Cornpone Brunch Watt Remix which was recovered off of a crushed DAT tape after being written off for the last 12 years.

The set also comes with a DVD which collects all of the bands music videos as well as live performances, predominantly from large foreign festivals, which seems to be the band's habitat these days.

The box set's packaging features the art of Arnold Odermatt, a Swiss policeman whose photographs of traffic accidents have since become acclaimed art (shown above and below, courtesy of Thrill Jockey). Odermatt often took pictures after the investigating officers had cleaned and left the scene, leaving nothing but starkly abandoned highways and the resting cars, testifying to the chaos of the accident. In the end, these photos are fitting, as Tortoise's music often takes the form of "clean" and well ordered chaos; calm snapshots of the creative whirlwind which gave them form.

Tortoise's hometown fans also have a grand opportunity to see the band in concert, as they will be performing two shows at the Empty Bottle on September 29.

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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

Read this feature »

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