A new album from Chicago’s premiere post-rock instrumental syncretists – the group’s seventh studio album, dropping nearly seven years since the last. And the headline news, trailered by a single, “Rock On”, is its brace of vocal tracks, the inclusion of which really isn’t so surprising.
The group’s Thrill Jockey debut was a 7″ Freakwater cover; they’ve often used talkbox effects; Kelly Hogan sang on 2004 album cut “The Lithium Stiffs”; The Brave & The Bold (2006) was a collection of cover songs, recorded in cahoots with Will Oldham, aka Bonnie “Prince” Billy.
That famously eclectic Oldham collaboration was bookended by two strong, individually distinctive and coherent sets of Tortoise music. These were It’s All Around You (2004), the group’s must subtle, cinematic and certainly its most underrated album to date, and Beacons of Ancestorship (2009), which was better received thanks to its mostly upbeat momentum and canny, exotica-tinged blend of dub, Kraut- and post-rock signifiers. But Beacons appealed as a synthesis, rather than a further evolution of the group’s signature outputs.
Tortoise were in no hurry to record the follow-up to Beacons of Ancestorship. A mature band in all senses, they all have other musical projects or families or both to occupy their time. The next project to be realised was a score for Eduardo ‘Blair Witch’ Sánchez’s 2011 creepfest Lovely Molly (of which I’ve heard only the Sound Showcase Vimeo). Meanwhile they waited for inspiration or a juicy commission to come their way. Cue a 2010 request from their home city of Chicago for a suite of music inspired by the area’s jazz and improvised music communities.
That commission generated five loose themes, which the group performed at a handful of concerts and subsequently, John McEntire says: “needed…a rethink in terms of structure. … At first they were just heads and solos. Now, they’re orchestrated and complex.” Nothing here sounds complex though, and there’s nothing to suggest that either jazz or improvised music, from Chicago or anywhere else, were ever part of the equation.
So The Catastrophist wasn’t music that Tortoise were burning to make. On the other hand, its genesis suggests a mature group decision not to go back into a recording studio just because.
That single I mentioned, “Rock On”, is a cover of a 1973 David Essex single that stays faithful to the downtempo original by rendering it even more fuggy and narcotic. It would’ve fit snugly on The Brave & The Bold, albeit as a more obvious choice for Tortoise than many of the songs that they did include (I’d forgotten how good the original was; the vocal on Tortoise’s version is by U.S. Maple’s Todd Rittmann).
The other vocal track, “Yonder Blue” is even slower, short (3:17) and succinct; a vividly dreamy twilight reverie for Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley. It wouldn’t sound out of place on a Yo La Tengo album, but McEntire says: “Robert Wyatt was our first choice”. Never mind Georgia, modest as this is, it’s still the best thing here.
The vocal tracks naturally make the nine remaining instrumental pieces sound comparably naked. And they are unfussy, even for the minimalism-savvy Tortoise, which highlights their melodic simplicity, in itself a strength whenever married to a strong directional pulse: witness the portion of “Ox Duke” where the production is stripped back to its metronomic but live-sounding drum track, boomy bass drone and insistent Reich-esque repetitions.
A familiar mix of tooled precision and vintage/analogue warmth will please anyone who liked the Beacons album. But, although The Catastrophist is just as polished, it’s also relatively underdeveloped. “Gopher Island” starts promisingly, but fades out after just a minute to make way for the vigorously stomping “Shake Hands With Danger”. It’s the former that seems representative of the whole. The album is full of meaty rhythms and head-nod grooves, with ear candy chimes and tracery guitar, each tidily wrapped up and production-buffed to perfection, but none are particularly memorable. (It sounds great through decent speakers, but is totally smothered by cheap headphones and laptop speakers.)
“The Clearing Fills” is disposable but does have a nice dark ambient coda, which effectively contrasts the bright interplay of electro-harpsichord synth lines that start “Gesceap”. Initially in equipoise, they then pulse through the oncoming Krautrock-style ‘jam’ on groove and repetition.”Tesseract” also sounds great, moment-to-moment, bright and lively, and there’s plenty of deft enlivening detail, but even so… It dissolves on hearing.
The poppy “Hot Coffee” could be another single, with its marriage of Nile Rodgers-style guitar to funky bass and firm beats, all concocting a pleasing disco/post-rock fusion. This and “Gesceap” could be great in concert. Tortoise’s live set could certainly use an overhaul.
All in all then, The Catastrophist is a mixed bag—some great moments, no real lows, everything as meticulously crafted as we’ve come to expect; it might even have some crossover appeal (if that has any meaning any more)—but it’s by no means essential.
Dan Bitney, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, John McEntire, Jeff Parker + Georgia Hubley and Todd Rittmann (vocals).
Buy The Catastrophist direct from Thrill Jockey.