Words by Brian Salvatore

Trying to describe Tortoise is a daunting task. The term ‘post-rock’ has been thrown around a lot in regards to the band, but I would argue that they are as much ‘pre-rock’ as ‘post-rock.’ Listening to the new album, The Catastrophist, is almost like scrolling through a catalog of recorded history – traces of baroque, jazz, minimalism, rock, film scores, funk, electronic music, hip hop, drone, and contemporary classical all can be found in their music. Aside from ‘instrumental,’ any way you would describe Tortoise would be somewhat reductive.

And now, even that distinction has been tossed out the window.

There are two tracks on The Catastrophist that feature vocals, which seems to be the final barrier that Tortoise had to knock down. The third track on the album features Todd Rittmann (U.S. Maple) on a cover of “Rock On,” the David Essex FM staple which sticks out like a sore thumb on the record. Interestingly enough, because Tortoise has never been shy about incorporating any number of influences, the appearance of vocals isn’t what sets the track apart – it is the lack of scope and ambition behind the track, the singular minded nature of it that really makes it sound unlike the rest of the album’s songs. Unlike when Georgia Hubley sings on the pretty “Yonder Blue,” Rittmann doesn’t sound like he belongs, and the album suffers for the inclusion of “Rock On.”

If you remove that (like Spotify did, for unknown reasons), the album flows considerably better, and becomes a more steady and satisfying journey than it does with that odd detour. The unusual thing about “Rock On” is that if it wasn’t a cover, it would never have met the standards of the band or made it on the album. While I can appreciate the carefree attitude of ‘anything goes’ and enjoy their desire to further push the envelope, I just wish they had done it with a better song. Because I’m sure there are folks who will never get to the extraordinary “Shake Hands with Danger” or “Gesecap” because they gave up before track three was even over. While I hope Tortoise continues to push and grow, I hope that their flirtation with bad 70’s rock songs is over. At least until they cover some vintage Aerosmith.

‘The Catastrophist’
Thrill Jockey
© January 22nd, 2016


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