#11: Tortoise - 'The Catastrophist'
listen to the whole thing on YouTube
Ok, so you probably either love or hate this group, and perhaps it is a little obvious, but here it is, another Tortoise album. First off, it had been a while since the erstwhile Chicago group dropped something, a document of their signature sound. So that is of note, entering what is probably the latter phase of the band, however long it might be. Their previous release was years ago, and not one of their best. But now that they are back, they are recalling their peak years in the early to mid aughts, as well as giving some nods back to their '90s selves when they made their name and put the words "post-rock" out there, which advertently or inadvertently, spawned a whole "thing".
On 'The Catastrophist', Tortoise mine old territory as well as introduce some new attributes to their repertoire. There are more vocals on this album, and they have never sounded so clear and so much a unit. You can tell they took their time on this one and let everything sink in to their musical cores. The title track gets things rolling right away. At first it sounds as if they are going to throw all of their vintage electronic gear at you with nostalgic drum machines and synths, but then the live version of the band sweeps things away with some beautiful Jeff Parker guitar parts and an overall wash of gorgeous production.
This album is on here because it sounds so damn good, and it is an album that received some of the most listening time in 2016 in my collection. It doesn't get old, as each song has enough parts in it that it takes you on a new journey each time, depending on how close you listen to it. It works just as well as great background music at work as it does on headphones or at a party. The arrangements are superb and it flows nicely compositionally too.
Positives aside, the album cover is extremely annoying, as is the cover song (which I deleted... it makes the album much better, try it). Also, the band don't really tread too much new territory, you can tell exactly what this is, it is a Tortoise album. As a younger person, I used to think this band was boring and overrated. I don't think they will be winning over too many new fans with this, as it sounds like most of their songs.
But the fact remains this is an all occasion, extremely well produced and composed album full of interesting sounds, if you are prepared to listen and contemplate it. And there is enough variety here to keep everything interesting and real. They can pull all of this stuff off live and are masters of incorporating electronic music into their sound pretty seamlessly, especially on their records.
In these times, which tend to be pretty high paced and stressful, this is a nice breather of a listen. The band does flirt with the heavy on "Shake Hands With Danger", which is darker than the rest of the album. The track is not one of the better tracks but it gives variety and something to compare the rest of the songs to. It gets more droney and dissonant at times, has a dark funk to it, and it has a more plodding feel. The album has its more introspective moments too, such as on "The Clearing Fills".
It is in this middle portion of the album where the band stretches out a bit and pays homage to some of their influences. They sound as if they are trying to expand their sound a bit and reaching a bit, but in a good way. Arpeggios and repetition take over on "Gesceap", which just so happens to be the longest song on 'The Catastrophist'. You also hear Tortoise branch out into vocal territory with a surreal almost David Lynchian track, "Yonder Blue", a lost '60s-ish love song.
But this album is really about songs like the title track, "Ox Duke", "Hot Coffee", and "Tesseract", where they show off their genre defining sound with utmost clarity of vision on these entertaining singles. Tortoise feel like they are treating each track like its own little world, and rightly so in this digital age of playlists and shuffle all. Check it out if you need a break from the grind. To come back years after their last lackluster album with some of their very best songs yet is inspiring and welcome.