Maybe it's the Atlanta heat, maybe it's lack of sleep, maybe the coffee he's drinking hasn't quite kicked in. When I mention to Tortoise drummer/vibraphonist John Herndon, calling from a tour stop, that the band's latest album, It's All Around You (Thrill Jockey), has been called "a little too derivative of early Tortoise," our previously amiable conversation comes to a swift halt. There's a long pause before he says, "I don't really know how to deal with that kind of criticism. The challenge to us is to make music that's interesting to pursue and to make creative Tortoise music. I think we try to push ourselves to do something new, and I think that we succeeded on this record. And for whatever reason, some people aren't hearing it and some people are."
It's All Around You is Tortoise's first album in three years, and as with its predecessors, the Chicago quintet—Herndon, Jeff Parker, John McEntire, Dan Bitney, and Douglas McCombs, multi-instrumentalists all—spend it taking bits from rock, jazz, electronica, avant-garde composition, dub, hip-hop, and funk and reassembling them into something that doesn't quite fit any of those categories. A cut like "The Lithium Stiffs" dips a toe into Laurie Anderson–like vocal experiments (an unusual sidestep for the mostly instrumental band), while "Stretch (You Are All Right)" rides an urbane groove. But after a decade spent establishing a well-deserved reputation as a group of forward-thinkers, Tortoise are now shackled with the expectations of outdoing their early work, when their unique hybrids were among the first to be given the tag "post-rock."
And It's All Around You is clearly not the album to do that. Alternately reminiscent of Brian Eno's eerie, mid-'70s ambient experiments and the ponderous British prog rock from the same era, the album sounds like the work of a band comfortable in its unorthodox groove. That might be because Tortoise's famously fluctuating lineup has solidified some: the current lineup has recorded two complete albums together (Around and 2001's Standards), as well as parts of 1998's TNT. But if two and a half albums in six years seems relatively unproductive, keep in mind that no one in the band is committed solely to Tortoise. All five of them play in multiple other outfits: A Grape Dope, the Sea and Cake, 5ive Style, Isotope 217, Eleventh Dream Day, Chicago Underground Orchestra, and plenty of others. And McEntire runs Soma, a recording studio where It's All Around You was worked and reworked.
The album was initially planned as an EP in 2003. But after initial sessions went south, the band opted to kept tinkering and writing material, rather than scrapping the whole thing. For a band that has a reputation of relying heavily on studio manipulation, it's the way Tortoise writes and records, according to Herndon, is almost conventional at times: "There are lots of different ways. Some of them are real traditional, where a band gets together and writes songs together. And another way is [to] use the studio as a composition tool. We take advantage of multitrack recording and editing on a Pro Tools system to come up with arrangements."
Pro Tools, a digital recording and mixing program, has also become an essential part of the album-making experience industry-wide since the band started using it in 1998. That hasn't necessarily made creating music any easier for Tortoise, though. "It's harder in some ways," says Herndon, "because you can get into the puzzle of rearranging all the parts of a song just by the click of a mouse. So decision making become a process in itself. Without using Pro Tools as an arranging tool, you just make decisions and that's it. But with Pro Tools anything is possible. You can just cut up this thing till forever.
"One of the reasons TNT took so long to make was because we wrote in the studio and we were taking the tiniest fragments of a song idea and laying it down. So then we took all of those parts and cut them into structures. That was just taking forever and ever. Things are quicker now because everybody has been using it for so long."
It's All Around You benefits from the evident comfort the band communicates with musically, particularly on the title track, a Latin-tinged piece of psychedelia, the dark-wave distortion of "Dot/Eyes," and the bombastic melancholia of the appropriately titled "Crest." Still, accusations that the band has grown complacent clearly sting Herndon, who bristles at one scribe's detailed comparison to Yes. Nevertheless, he maintains, "Twenty years from now the truth of what [It's All Around You] is will be known. And if it's a pile of shit, it will be known for that. But if it's still standing, then that'll be the truth."
Tortoise play the Showbox with Green Beans and the Eternals at 8 p.m. Fri., May 28. $16 adv.