March 25, 2004

Tortoise "It's All Around You"

Tortoise. You either love 'em or hate 'em. They set the bar for the late nineties' post-jazz indie-rock, and they're the band that launched a thousand imitators--as well as one-hundred side projects. They practically defined the Chicago scene back in the day, and they've been the source of many a joke, too. Their sound has always been cool, relaxing, innovative and, yes, somewhat inoffensive jazz-rock. Chill-out music that's challenging enough for the jazz-musos to discuss, yet it's pleasant enough that you could play it in any Starbucks without having to worry about losing a customer due to the weird music.

It's All Around You, their newest record, gives you exactly what you'd expect from a Tortoise record. Breezy melodies? Yup. Awesome percussion? You got it. Great synth lines? Check. Nothing too different from their previous records? Yeah, no worries. Their adherenece to their sound is frustrating if you want it to be, but I personally believe that if you've got a great sound that works, then there's really no need to mess up the formula too much. See, that's the thing with Tortoise. They don't have to try. They have no equals. They don't have anything to prove, and that's perhaps their greatest strength: they make music on their terms and let the world accept or reject it as they may. This quietly uncompromising stance is not only impressive, it's admirable.

The press kit that came with It's All Around You states that this is the first time in Tortoise's history that they've had the same lineup for two consecutive albums. This is important, because it helps you understand the truth about why It's All About You is a great record. While it's true that it doesn't sound at all different from Standards, it does sound a whole lot stronger than that album. It's obvious that the five guys have bonded together musically, and songs sound stronger, tighter, more developed than before--something that only comes from time, practice, and a consistent lineup.

Because they've been together for several years and have solidified what it is they want to do with their music, they now have the added luxury of experimentation. There's nothing worse than a band getting new members every album and then changing their style dramatically because of their new member's ideas. Thus, the changes that they make are slight, if you even notice them at all. Tortoise sounds comfortable with their lineup, and what would have been noticable by a new member's addition-- a hip-hop beat here (such as "It's All Around You"), vocal experiments there ("The Lithium Stiffs")--is a sign of growth as opposed to suddenly new ideas.

Of course, that could be Tortoise's point; maybe they're trying to change their style of music by making you think that they've not changed one bit. Not only do I buy that, I'm pretty sure that's what they were going for with It's All Around You.The more I think about it, the more I start to believe that's Tortoise's reason for living: changing music so slowly, so gradually, that you'll never even notice that it's changed. Brings new meaning to their name, doesn't it? Yes, if you've heard one Tortoise album, you've heard 'em all--or have you? If you like Tortoise, then you'll find plenty here to love; if you don't like Tortoise, It's All Around You probably isn't gonna change your opinion. Still, a flawlessly lovely record is a flawlessly lovely record.

--Joseph Kyle

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