Tortoise: It's All Around You
Thrill Jockey

1996's Millions Now Living Will Never Die (and specifically the epic “Djed”) elevated Tortoise to a higher artistic and critical echelon, a status the group retains to this day. The obvious downside, however, of such a lofty perch is the attendant pressure of hyperbolic expectation that swells before each new release, and the group's subsequent discs arguably evidence traces of that pressure. As impressive as it is musically and compositionally, TNT, for example, sounds so over-produced that it lacks spontaneity. Still, the group craftily deflates the tension to some degree by withdrawing from public view for months, even years, as band members involve themselves with side projects and then re-convene for another eagerly anticipated collection. Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker and John McEntire are perfectionists by reputation, and the group's fifth full-length It's All Around You will do nothing to alter that, given that it was created painstakingly over the course of a year at McEntire's Soma Electronic Music Studios. However, while the five members are proficient on their instruments, they're not musos (or at last don't present themselves as such) and there's nary a display of soloistic self-indulgence. What ultimately distinguishes Tortoise, then, from its like-minded brethren is not technique per se but the imaginative sweep of its compositional conception. The listener never knows exactly what the next song will sound like, a capacity for surprise that may be attributed, in part, to the band's Zelig-like assimilation of styles like Hip-Hop, Afrobeat, even MOR. Even so, while the group remains stylistically unpredictable, a signature sound—vibes and guitars paired with intricate bass and drum patterns and enhanced by subtle electronic treatments—definitely emerges as the disc unfolds over its ten tracks.

It all sounds promising enough but unfortunately too many tracks on It's All Around You don't quite measure up to the compositional quality or imagination of previous works. Five pieces in particular do argue persuasively in support of Tortoise's stature. “The Lithium Stiffs,” a lovely ethereal concoction of airy vocals, spacious dub production, and electronics, sounds unlike anything the band has done before. Similarly unique is “Crest” which moves between stately sections of harpsichord-simulated melodies and MOR episodes of synth washes that, even if meant ironically, are irresistible nonetheless. “Dot/Eyes,” a raucous drum-heavy rave-up of churning hi-hats, snare hits, dissonant atmospherics and elephantine bass lines, offers a glimpse of how powerful the band's playing can be when they loosen the reins, and the balladic “On the Chin” provides a gorgeous guitar-vibes showcase along with some tastefully restrained drumming. Mention also must be made of the breezy opener “It's All Around You” which pairs interweaving vibes and guitar patterns with a unique shuffle of Bossanova, Afrobeat, and Latin flavourings. On the down side, the remaining five tracks underwhelm in different ways. The laconic funky groove of “Stretch (You Are All Right)” provides some effective Rhodes, vibes, and guitar interplay but advances little upon the group's existing work. “Unknown” has a loose, jam-like feel with a Milesian Rhodes-guitar duet but it's hardly spectacular. The band refreshingly breaks free on the closer “Salt the Skies” when its drums and guitars steadily broil and then cacophonously explode but unfortunately any possibility of further abandon is thwarted when order is again restored and the track ends politely. So we're left with five standouts and five others that are serviceable enough but, by Tortoise standards, hardly incredible. As palatable as it is, what It's All Around You lacks is unbridled passion. Listening to it, I can't help but think of recordings like The Mahavishnu Orchestra's Between Nothingness and Eternity and Phantom City 's Shiva Recoil (LiveUnlive), live recordings, not incidentally, where both bands unleash a fury that's at times overwhelming. Perhaps Tortoise should steer clear of the studio for a while and release a live record next time around. Doing so would add a much-needed rawness that its music presently lacks (although Standards was a promising step in that direction), and it would allow its music to breathe more when less constricted by studio perfectionism.

May 2004