Tortoise are post-rock's first truly iconic act. They've been making a case for the distinction ever since TNT
, and they practically sealed the deal with Standards
, but I for one wasn't comfortable deeming them to be so until It's All Around You
reassured me that their sound has reached an expansive plateau rather than a short-lived peak. So let me say it again, but with more confidence: Tortoise are post-rock's first truly iconic act. Or, to really phrase it correctly, Tortoise are the first post-rock band to move past single hyphen classification and assert themselves as true icons -- after all, icons cannot be confined to a clearly defined musical movement, and they cannot have their artistic lineage traced back to a handful of palpable influences. Even though Tortoise might have a great deal in common with Can, Mogwai and Boards of Canada on a strictly musical level, it has finally become undeniably apparent that their songs have such a broader reach; instead of evoking reactions like "that bass riff is total krautrock" or "doesn't that sample belong on a Fennesz record?", Tortoise paint with a sweeping, otherworldly brushstroke. Listeners will say things like "This song makes me feel like I'm in Hawaii" rather than dissecting every last note. Tortoise achieve the sort of wholly affecting, let-your-overly-analytical-guard-down sonic quality that usually only a Bowie or a Beck (or, to cite a more similar artist, Air) can convince listeners to go along with, and this quality makes them much more enjoyable, and much more appealing -- much more important
than their tunnel-visioned brethren.
But you've been following the band for a while, and you, too, have probably picked up on this iconic quality of theirs, right? I'm sure you're glad to know that they haven't made any drastic changes or taken a turn for the worse with It's All Around You, but you'd probably also like to know what sort of awesome tricks John McEntire and the gang have in store this time around. So let's start at the logical starting place -- track one, the title song. "It's All Around You" rises to action with a signature Tortoise guitar line -- crisp and precise, but not compressed or expensive-sounding; it's a truly unique, always-welcome beacon, and it's the product of love and well-meaning perfectionism rather than a million-dollar budget or an eye for a target demographic. After the incisive electric six string-plucking lets you know that this is most definitely another Tortoise album, the song quickly settles into a Polynesian sway. "It's All Around You" sounds like the album cover looks -- lush, verdant, unearthly, enveloping and a teeny bit new age. The song quickly reaches a level of stasis, and unloads pretty much the same beautiful barrage of percussion, xylophone and guitar on your ears for a good four minutes. It's a striking contrast to the more open soundscapes for which the band is perhaps better known, and it's also a theme to which they return throughout the album.
"The Lithium Stills", which features a much ballyhooed vocal contribution from Kelly Hogan, follows, littering your headphones with a glorious array of open space. Don't expect any lyrics, but do expect some beautiful "oooh"s and "aaah"s against a minimal, rhythm-driven backdrop. Bright keyboards finally assume a more prominent role in the song's final minute, filling out the thick bass notes and steady cymbal brushes and melting into the grandiose "Crest". The transition between the two songs is triumphant -- the booming, fuzzy guitar that ushers in "Crest" is such a natural progression that you probably won't even realize it's the beginning of a new song. Far Eastern chimes dance into the fray next, as if to announce the approach of the titular crest, and that crest does indeed sweep over the Asian landscape, albeit in one of the most unexpected ways imaginable: via an intergalactic synth drone that out-cheeses anything Donald Fagen or Daft Punk could ever conjure up. The synth is a winning reminder that the gentlemen in Tortoise probably spend just as much practice time laughing as they do geeking out over their Pro-Tools, and the grimy, squealing guitar that punctuates the synth chorus is a sly nod to McEntire's hard-rocking past. The "Lithium Stills"/"Crest" couplet is certainly not to be missed; the only downside is that it comes too early in the album.
"Stretch (You Are All Right)" separates "Lithium Stills"/"Crest" from another, more rhythm and electronic-oriented two song movement, "Unknown" and "Dot/Eyes". "Stretch" is the album's most immediately endearing song; it opens with a linear Neu-esque bass snap and builds to a xylophone deluge of a refrain. Melodically, it rivals The Cure at their poppiest, and texturally it's as dense as the title track. It's also the song that sounds the most like something another band would write, but "Stretch" is perhaps the best way yet to get Tortoise's strongest elements in a single dose.
"Dot/Eyes" could be It's All Around You's most ambitious song. Its militant snare reports, tribal bass and trancey peripheral electronics hearken back to Millions Now Living Will Never Die's more aggressive moments, and it delivers an unexpectedly satisfying payoff when vocal samples cut in and the volume swells until it blows up in your face, making for a pretty rock and roll ending to a decidedly un-rock song.
Tortoise spend the final four songs working the same xylophonophilic ground that they do with "Stretch" and the opening track, and I honestly wonder if it's too much of a good thing. The xylophone has always been the band's strongest element, and they've always seemed to realize that, saving it for their most stirring climaxes and most insistent refrains. Here it feels as if they decided to give the people what they want (more xylophone) instead of throwing out another challenging song or two. "On the Chin" suffers the most from xylophone overexposure, but the instrument's very presence blunts the impact of "Five Too Many" and "Salt the Skies", superb, surprisingly hard-rocking compositions that also happen to feature prominent xylophone parts. This minor miscue prevents It's All Around You from reaching a lofty perfect ten status, but by the same token, "Salt the Skies"'s pounding, distorted finale makes for such a perfect ending that most listeners will leave the record with nothing but good memories. It's true that these memories could have been even more perfect with a little more discretion on the band's behalf, but you still can't really argue with such a good thing, can you?
It doesn't really matter whether It's All Around You is the best Tortoise album, or the best album to come out so far this year, or a canonical post-rock album in the making. What matters is the fact that Tortoise have created another batch of distinct, inimitable songs that strike a perfect balance between the academic and the playful, the immediate and the eternal. Once again, Tortoise have proven themselves to be a band like no other -- an outfit from another planet. Most importantly, It's All Around You makes clear that everyone -- and by everyone I mean the backpack-toting DJ, the weird neo-pagan nudist down the street, the stodgy, grizzled ex-punk rocker and the greasy-haired, ponytail-sporting 40 year old guy in the R&B/jazz/Top 40 fusion bar band that calls itself Soul Connection or something to that effect -- should find something to appreciate in Tortoise's music.