Back in 1994, during the post-grunge doldrums, Chicago threw a whopper of a musical curveball: Tortoise. Initially an ensemble of bass (Doug McCombs) and percussion (Dan Bitney, John Herndon), sprinkled with occasional keyboards (John McEntire), Tortoise defied the calisthenics of electronica while steering through ambient and dub, picking up only the bare rhythmic essentials.
Tortoise, Isotope 217
Crocodile, Tuesday, June 8
With its molasses syncopations and odd electronic washes, Tortoise was the critical rage, picking up steam with Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the follow-up to their eponymous debut. The band helped make Chicago's Thrill Jockey Records a guiding force for late '90s indie rock.
For its third full-length, TNT, Tortoise took a full year in the studio, and guitarist Jeff Parker became the newest full-time member.
Parker has a keen eye for musical freedom, as he is Tortoise's closest link to Chicago's thriving and creative underground jazz community. He's a member of the storied Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, a Chicago collective founded in the mid-1960s and from which came Anthony Braxton, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, and others. Parker also plays alongside cornetist Rob Mazurek in Isotope 217, Tortoise's opening act on the current tour. His other projects include Ernest Dawkins' New Horizons Ensemble and Mazurek's lauded Chicago Underground Orchestra.
Parker brings to Tortoise a moorage outside the rhythmic underpinning that's made the band famous. His starkly struck chords are a second centerpiece, stippling the low-end with trebly guitar and making the band's music stupendously conversational.
Tortoise hasn't sold its dense, polyrhythmic farm, though; TNT presents the same laconic grooves as the band's earlier recordings. And not surprisingly for a group that is infamously studio-centric, the record is full of knob-twisting and sound manipulation. Though the members of Tortoise often improvise when playing live, they share a fascination with remixing that belies their music's loose-limbed, jam-like sense.
When Bitney and Herndon appear as the drummerly core of Isotope 217, they ease away from the laid-back sound. That's not to imply that Isotope 217 is energy music. But the sextet is far more driven by horns, Mazurek's cornet, and Sara P. Smith's trombone than it is by a committee of percussionists. The sextet's debut, The Unstable Molecule (Thrill Jockey/New Beyond), contains spidery strands of Tortoise's sound environments, but with far more brisk melodies. Isotope 217 takes the stratified depths of Tortoise and piles a front-end brightness from the horns, making the group a grooving, funked-up trip, well worth catching before Bitney, Herndon, and Parker head off to their other band.