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Tortoise: A Lazarus Taxon

Tortoise: A Lazarus Taxon

Label:Thrill Jockey
Release Date:2006

By Lee Gardner | Posted 9/27/2006

Ask an Italian butcher about choice cuts of pork, and he’s likely to shrug "Tutto buono"--"It’s all good." And just as every part of a pig eventually finds its way to the deli case somehow, so big-name bands eventually get odds-and-sods compilations wrapping up their leavings in a neat package to take home under your arm. Tortoise’s new fridge-cleaning set of B-sides, remixes, and assorted scraps spans a groaning three CDs and a DVD, and no wonder--the expansive, omnivorous nature of the band’s music and working methods have more in common with that hypothetical butcher than most. If the music enclosed herein isn’t tutto buono, per se, none of it is worth throwing away.

The band that put the "post" in "postrock" is notable for many reasons--eschewing guitar in its early incarnations and eschewing vocals always, embracing ’90s electronic music and remix culture far ahead of its ostensible rock peers, launching a thousand imitative proj-rock ensembles--but its reaffirmation and reinterpretation of the notion of song form stands out here. Opening cut "Gamera" is top-down country-drive rock, post be damned, its slippery guitars and walloping bass flashing obvious sun-spangled appeal. "Goriri," an on-the-fly "Gamera" remix by the band, is a dubby stomper of an IDM track, booty-free bass music at its finest. Both are distinct, almost unrecognizable from each other, and yet both are well worth the price of admission on their own.

Even as the group moves in and out of lineups and approaches--palpably live band-ish to hello ProTools--it never descends to mere experiments. There’s always a melody ("Blackbird" and its burbly remix "CTA"), a rhythm (the percolating "A Grape Dope"), a texture (the warm drones of its remix of Yo La Tengo’s "Autumn Sweater," the underwater jazz noises of "Deltitnu"), or sometimes all three ("Madison Area," "As You Said") that make the individual cuts cohere. "Cliff Dweller Society" patches together short-wave transmissions, jazzy bits, and an orchestrated section from an expanded version of the band over 10-plus minutes in a way that never bores. The sweetly, homely lo-fi of "Whitewater" is just John McEntire doing the one-man-band thing for a couple of minutes on what sounds like the loneliest New Year’s Day ever. Both are pure Tortoise.

Which is not to say that everything on A Lazarus Taxon is created equal. Tortoise’s take on Duke Ellington’s "Didjeridoo" proves that the group is as capable of winky cod jazz as anyone else, and a string of tunes on disc two reveals that vibraphone overkill can be every bit as wearying as the guitar kind. Remixes by Autechre ("To Day Retreival," "Adverse Camber") and Nobukazu Takemura (a version of "TNT") mostly just show off the tricks each brings to such jobs. Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters, the long-out-of-print 1995 collection of remixed Tortoise that constitutes disc three of this set, sounds dated and poky. (The DVD mostly features the guys in Tortoise looking like they do and playing the music Tortoise plays. ’Nuff said.)

Still, the reason such a set excites is that Tortoise not only expanded the boundaries of so-called rock music, but also has yet to waste anyone’s time with formless explorations of the new territory it staked out. And while A Lazarus Taxon has the smell of a career capper, it also leaves open the hope that there’s more where this came from.

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