Experimental rockers Tortoise take their time

Steven Sonoras
Special to The Detroit News

The gap between the Chicago experimental rock band Tortoise’s 2009 record “Beacons of Ancestorship” and its latest LP “The Catastrophist” was the longest in the quintet’s history, but the results prove that slow and steady wins the race.

The origin of “The Catastrophist” actually came shortly after the release of its predecessor. In 2010, Tortoise was commissioned by Chicago to create music responding to its ties to its hometown’s famous jazz and improvisational scenes. The band spent the next few months creating a suite of improvisational pieces with five other Chicago soloists, including flutist Nicole Mitchell and saxophonist Edward Wilkerson Jr.

Tortoise premiered the compositions at the Pritzker Pavilion later that year, and soon after in Paris and Minneapolis, before rearranging the suite for their next album.

Guitarist Jeff Parker, who joined the group in 1997, says a new LP was part of the plan from the beginning.

“That’s essentially the working method for Tortoise: People bring in ideas individually, present them to the group, and collectively we develop the material,” Parker says. “Because we have a suite, it’s a kind of more formalized recognition of that process.”

Parker says “The Catastrophist” bears little resemblance to its building blocks, and that was intentional. The loose structures the group began with evolved into ornate compositions as the band tinkered with them over a three-year process.

“Whatever we do is in reaction to what we’ve done in the past,” Parker says. “We make a conscious effort to do something different.”

That “something different” is the appearance of guest vocals on two tracks. The record is a summation of the band’s ability to blend innumerable genres into new and exciting forms, but it’s nearly impossible not to focus on the addition of the human voice.

The track “Yonder Blue,” which sounds like a funk remix of a lost Carpenters song, was written and recorded as an instrumental before the band decided try a new approach. Robert Wyatt respectfully declined to sing on the song, but the group found their vocalist in Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley.

Tortoise has long had a relationship with Yo La Tengo — Tortoise drummer John McEntire produced their 2013 album “Fade,” and Doug McCombs’ side project Eleventh Dream Day used to tour with Yo La Tengo in the ’80s — so it wasn’t difficult to convince Hubley to lend her voice to the tune.

“We always loved her voice and her lyrics,” Parker says. “We just sent it to her in a no pressure kind of way. If she was inspired, cool; if not, cool.”

The other vocal-driven track on the album is a cover of David Essex’s ’70s glam anthem “Rock On.”

Todd Rittman, of Chicago’s U.S. Maple and Dead Rider, provides the satanically seductive vocals on the track. Parker says the band’s decision to rework the song was the result of a bizarre coincidence, but it perfectly summarizes Tortoise’s tradition of subverting musical cliches to achieve new musical heights.

“It fits our aesthetic because there’s no guitar. It’s keyboard, bass guitar and drums. And it’s got this kind of minimal, bottom-heavy, weird, psychedelic production,” Parker says.

“Kind of like Sly Stone, super dry, creepy production. It’s just a weird, awesome song that everybody knows, but nobody realized how weird and heavy it is.”

Steven Sonoras is an Ypsilanti-based freelance writer.


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