Tortoise: A Lazarus Taxon
Thrill Jockey

Critical and public adulation can be paralyzing—look no further than Portishead and My Bloody Valentine for examples of groups undone by the weight of expectation. No one would have been too surprised had Tortoise similarly imploded when confronted with hyperbolic worship following the release of Millions Now Living Will Never Die and its 20-minute centerpiece “Djed”; not only did the Chicago outfit have to surpass that early peak but had to brave the attempt under the microscopic gaze of fanatical listeners. Not surprisingly, the more refined and stylistically broader follow-up TNT couldn't help but be anti-climactic while 2004's It's All Around You seems overly self-conscious, its every detail obsessed over; falling in between, the rougher-edged Standards succeeds better, even if its looser approach still feels calculated.

The group's mammoth rarities collection A Lazarus Taxon (“the paleontological term for a species that disappears, then reappears in the fossil record” says the press release) satisfies precisely because its odds'n'sods material seems so refreshingly loose. It's as if, liberated from the intense pressures of album-related production, the opportunity to create remixes and singles, tour EPs, and B-sides (all of it created between 1995 and 2001) allowed the group to relax; indulgences like “Blackbird,” for example, are the sound of Tortoise contentedly toiling in its private lab, experimenting with new ideas and directions without agonizing over their reception. For the record, some tracks are Tortoise in name only with a small number solo spotlights by John Herndon, John McEntire, Doug McCombs, and Jeff Parker, and only the first two discs are rarities: the third resurrects Rhymes, Resolutions, & Clusters and the fourth features music videos and live footage.

Interestingly, the opening discs' greatest moment arrives first. Though country-tinged picking unassumingly begins 1995's “Gamera” on the back porch, the bucolic episode ends when the pulsating thrust of an urgent drum and bass swing appears. In an unrestrained manner heard all too seldom on the band's full-lengths, the rhythm slowly intensifies, seamlessly escalating from a locomotive glide to an ultimate light-speed cruise. If nothing else matches that peak, there are still numerous captivating moments ahead. “Source of Uncertainty” finds the group trying on gamelan funk for size while “Madison Area” weds a swinging android-electro afro-groove to Jeff Parker's Hawaiian-flavoured guitar accents. “Why We Fight” effortlessly weaves broiling funk with Tortoise's renowned heavy drum punch. In “Cliff Dweller Society,” the group stitches numerous experimental passages, many improvised, into an extended quarter-hour patchwork, the best part a grandly orchestrated section that finds Tortoise transformed into a horn-heavy big band. In addition, there are languorous guitar-vibes settings (“Wait”), placid soundscapes (“Blue Station,” “Restless Waters”), downtempo experiments (“A Grape Dope,” “Whitewater”), and even a Joy Division tribute (“As You Said”). There are remixes Tortoise created for others (its arresting calypso-styled take on Five Deez's “Sexual For Elizabeth”) as well as interpretations by others of the group's material: Autechre splinters “To Day Retrieval” (1998) and “Adverse Camber” into atom-sized filaments, and Nobukazu Takemura converts “TNT” into a 10-minute setting of sunlit sparkle and Reich-inspired mallet percussion patterns.

Disc three, a re-issue of the remix EP Rhythms, Resolutions, And Clusters, is the only one that preserves chronology but is also the least compelling. Of primary value to completists, the half-hour disc's comprised of mildly interesting curios (Jim O'Rourke's drone treatment of “His Second Story Island” and Mike Watt's bass-heavy version of “Cornpone Brunch”). Considering the disc appeared in 1995, Casey Rice's phantom soundscape “Cobwebbed” and the hip-hop breaks animating Bundy K. Brown's “Not Quite East of the Ryan,” a polyglot handling of “Spiderwebbed,” sound rather prescient.

Packed with live footage, videos, and short films, the two-hour DVD offers a welcome chance to see the band as something more than an anonymous recording collective. Collaborators include filmmaker Braden King (“Seneca”) and Fugazi's Brendan Canty (“Salt The Skies,” from the film project Burn To Shine). Of special note, Adam Levite's video (“Salt the Skies”) reads like a slow-mo colour homage to the contorting figures of Robert Longo's Men In Cities series, and the group, sporting janitor gear and monkey masks, performs “Seneca” in a ‘live' Chic-a-Go-Go TV appearance. The band is also captured live in Toronto (1996), Barcelona (2005), and at the 1999 Deutsches Jazz Festival alongside guests Fred Anderson, Chad Taylor, Noel Kupersmith, and Rob Mazurek.

One is naturally overwhelmed by such plenitude and, in truth, not all of it passes muster: it would be hard to imagine a jam like “Didjeridoo” from 1999's Red Hot + Indigo making it onto one of the albums, and the fact that the improvisation “Deltitnu” got cut from It's All Around You because of time restrictions is no great loss; a shame, too, that three-fifths of “The Match Incident” is squandered on a pointless ‘radio drama' episode. But with sprawling collections like Sandanista and A Lazarus Taxon, it's the cumulative impact that matters most. The set confirms that, despite its namesake, the Chicago group moves quickly, rendering the oft-used ‘post-rock' label inadequate in face of the group's fertile imagination and kaleidoscopic range.

October 2006