The Catastrophist

Band/Artist: Tortoise
Album: The Catastrophist
Best song: Probably “Ox Duke”
Worst song: Nah.

As I mentioned in writing about Chris Isaak, I’ve gotten off this blog’s schedule for years now and I’m trying to get back into it. This is easier said than done because I have less optimism about my own skill set and have acknowledged that I, as a writer and thinker, am simple mediocre.

But, perhaps practice will make me better and perhaps writing about something important to me will jar something loose. I doubt it, but it’s worth trying. If nothing else, this type of whispering into the void will help me organize my thoughts better and keep me away from thinking about the hell world in which we live.

One of the traditions I had in this space was writing about my favorite artists when they released albums and Tortoise has been my longest-standing favorite band. I’m certainly in reruns on this story, but I’ve been in love with the post-rock titans since a friend — whose brother is in a band that was recording with John McEntire at the time — told me about them just after my freshman year of high school. I requested songs on WNUR, taped them and the rest is history.

The Catastrophist is the band’s seventh proper album (they did a brilliant cover record with Will Oldham and an In the Fishtank collaboration with The Ex) and the way the record came together is sorta fascinating. I’ll take it right from Thrill Jockey‘s description:

For “The Catastrophist,” the spark came in 2010 when the group was commissioned by the City of Chicago to compose a suite of music rooted in its ties to the area’s noted jazz and improvised music communities.

Tortoise then performed those five loose themes at a handful of concerts, and “when we finally got around to talking about a new record, the obvious solution to begin with was to take those pieces and see what else we could do with them,” says McEntire, at whose Soma Studios the band recorded the new album. “It turned out that for them to work for Tortoise, they needed a bit more of a rethink in terms of structure. They’re all pretty different in the sense that at first they were just heads and solos. Now, they’re orchestrated and complex.”

There is an entire industry build around talking about the creative process and it usually lays bare the worst of creative types in various ways; the Game of Thrones dudes are obviously dumb-as-hell, Kanye West has probably lost his mind, Beck is insufferable, etc. John McEntire’s little bit above is the least-opaque he’s ever been, which is good, I guess.

I’m more interested in the fact that Tortoise, in its late career, has developed a real relationship with Chicago. That the city commissioned the band — surely, someone low in the city structure. I doubt Richard Daley decided to bring in Tortoise during his final years in office — to perform is very cool and speaks to the band’s place in the scene and the city. McEntire is the binding element, of course, through all the albums he’s produced and the two bands of which he’s a part (Tortoise and The Sea and Cake).

Cook County is the second-largest county in the U.S. by population and its art scene is severely underrated because of Chicago’s reputation as a city of industry. Chicago’s African-American art and music community – which I won’t dwell on, for the obvious reason that I am not qualified to do so — has been huge since the Great Migration; Ebony magazine began there, for example, not to mention the hip hop titans who’ve come from there (Da Brat, Kanye, Common, Lupe Fiasco, Chief Keef, etc.). More in my lane, though, is the indie/avant garde music scene of just my lifetime.

Tortoise was not even the most commercially popular band involving John McEntire fromt his scene; The Sea and Cake almost certainly sold more records via Sam Prekop’s soothing voice and a move conventional sound. Tortoise’s place in the scene is similar to that of the Velvet Underground; other bands sounded similar during that time (and had elements before, hello Slint!), but no one epitomized both the spirit and ethos of American post-rock like the first Tortoise singles and their first two albums. The album and the and defined what we would all argue to be post-rock. Mogwai was all about guitars, Stereolab’s early sound was disco-y, Pra’s early work was as much Roky Erickson as it was Pink Floyd.

Tortoise’s first album is nothing like that. As expanded on by the likes of Do Make Say Think, Explosions in the Sky, Godspeed You Black Emperor and other giants of the genre, Tortoise’s first two albums are the foundation on which the genre is built.

The Catastrophist was made, seemingly, in times when the various members were not doing other things. Tortoise is seemingly not a full-time job for these guys; the time between albums and tours grows with each release. That hardly takes away from the album, as The Catastrophist is as strong as anything Tortoise has produced in recent years. It’s the first Tortoise record with two songs featuring vocals (one of which is a cover) ever and it answers the question I get a lot about my favorite group: “why Tortoise?””

A lot of the criticism about Tortoise’s specific brand of post-rock is that it is overly intellectualized. I’ve heard people call it everything from boring to noodly and there’s a basis to such criticism, in that there are no vocals and no screaming guitar lines like popular music has been for most of the breadth of popular American culture. Pretentiousness might simmer, but (at the risk of sounding like a monster pain in the ass)The Catastrophist offers what every Tortoise record offers: Layers of emotion and mood wrapped in the rhythm-based band.

Ultimately, that’s what has made Tortoise so interesting: The bands’ first two records were not guitar-focused, but rather seemingly reliant as much on the rhythm section. The Catastrophist, as every Tortoise record since Millions Now Living Will Never Die, has moved away from the drum-led Tortoise sound. The edges of “Hot Coffee” are as much occupied by the bands’ guitar as the frontlines of the song are occupied by guitar sounds and keyboards. Album ender “At Odd With Logic” is as much based on the sweeping guitar as it is in the jazz drum line, complete with studio-effected breakdown. “Ox Duke” and “Shake Hands With Danger” use percussion in ways that sound like something that could’ve occupied TNT, while “Gopher Island” shows the benefit of having three studio wizards in a band of five people.

It’s easy (so easy that I’m going to do it!) to focus in on the two songs with vocals for the obvious novelty of them. Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley’s vocal on “Yonder Blue” provide vocals to a sound that certainly doesn’t need vocals, yet adds a layer of tenderness to a lovely composition of layers. Hubley’s lyrics are sparse and affected, working within the colors of night as she sings to the moon and the sky.

Todd Rittmann, of U.S. Maple, sings on the cover of David Essex’s “Rock On” and it’s decidedly anti-rock in the way the band presents the song. Noise rock vet Rittmann is decidedly refrained on the anticipatory anthem as the band drops big notes on the song. According to an interview with Dan Bitney, the band had played the song while practicing partially to jump-start the creative process and partially because bass player Doug McCombs really liked the bass groove. https://www.popmatters.com/the-tortoise-wins-an-interview-with-dan-bitney-2495457088.html

It’s kind of a bass players’ song. I think it was Doug’s idea to even want to do it. The bass player [Herbie Flowers] is the same guy from ‘Walk on the Wild Side’. He’s kind of a famous English session dude. But mainly, if you’re in the studio and things are slowing down, a cover song is a way to get some easy momentum going.

To no one’s surprise, the cover exceeds the original by way of McCombs’ loud bass snaps, Rittmann’s layered vocals, the heavy drums and the studio magic McEntire, Bitney and company put on the song. The song, sadly, is not available on the Spotify version of the album, but someone did upload it to YouTube. That person deserves a medal.

Which is to say: Tortoise emanated from the same scene that Rittmann’s U.S. Maple did and the same scene as bands like June of 44, Shellac and The Sea and Cake did. Structured noise has always been as much as part of Tortoise as it was to U.S. Maple and “Rock On” has it in bunches. The album vacillates between the discordant “Rock On” the pelagic “Yonder Blue” and the laminous originals because Tortoise is a band that can do just about anything. But it’s always distinctly Tortoise.

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