While Tortoise have never really become a household name, the five discs they've recorded over the past 10 or so years have been a powerful
presence in indie-rock circles. They're the band that broke down the
boundaries between jazz, rock and prog. Their first disc in 1994 had
critics and fans tripping over themselves trying to describe it.
Ten years on, Tortoise have recorded their first disc without a lineup
change. The five original musicians are here: Dan Bitney, John Herndon,
Douglas McCombs, John McEntire and Jeff Parker. This time, having free
rein at John McEntire's Soma studio allowed them to spend a year
writing, mixing and tinkering in one setting. As can happen when
something is tinkered with one time too many, the results are a little
soft in spots. The music has lost some of the hard edge and grit that
hooked my rock sensibilities and kept Tortoise's disc TNT close to my CD
player for the past five years. The vibraphone often overtakes the bass,
so the overall CD leans more toward jazz and tends to sound like a film
soundtrack. I don't necessarily have anything against an airy and filmic
music. I'd just come to expect more punch from Tortoise.
There are some punchy moments on It's All Around You. The band's
trademark looped guitars take off and soar on the sixth track,
"Dots/Eyes." The song starts with a halting, staccato guitar loop and
from there becomes a swirl of reverberation and rhythm. It sounds like a
dance party at an industrial-waste site, with the growling bass line in
the middle either a groaning monster or menacing power tool.
Lest the listener be filled with dread, the band follows with an airy
track called "On the Chin." It's classic Tortoise, wandering through
different movements and moods at a slow pace. The slow pace doesn't make
it boring; the song is full of intrigue and melancholy. "Five Too
Many" is another perfect Tortoise song, blending bits of glitch, jazz
and rock in a five-minute jam. I'm sure this song was tinkered with
endlessly in the studio, but it sounds spontaneous and fresh.
The biggest departure for the band is "The Lithium Stiffs." In
it Kelly Hogan sings a breathy series of "aaah"s, along with some male
"aaah"s harmonizing behind her. It's unusual for Tortoise to have
vocals. Itís also unusual for the band to sound so feathery light.
There's a close relation between this song and one Doug McCombs did with
Brokeback, where Mary Hansen sang. This could almost be the band's
farewell to Mary, who died last year in a bicycle accident.
Listening to It's All Around You often feels like listening to a Café
del Mar disc: Those compilations of lite dance music offer to bring the
sunset to your dinner table or your bedroom, as opposed to bringing
actual sunlight or darkness. Tortoise have, in the past, asked more from
their listeners. This time they let us off a little too easy.