I’m dirty, mean and mighty unclean
I’m a wanted man
Public enemy number one
So lock up your daughter
Lock up your wife
Lock up your back door
And run for your life
The man is back in town
So don’t you mess me ’round
… so sang Tortoise, never. The cerebral Chicagoans may have named their third album TNT but there the similarities with AC/DC’s second album ended. On this release the band had the challenge of following up a real game-changing LP, Millions Now Living Will Never Die*, that album’s sublime mix of ambience, groove and effects really would take some topping. So how did Tortoise play it? they downplayed the electronic edge of their music and got their jazz-on, to great effect.
Overall TNT is a much more organic affair than its two predecessors and definitely does that thing that I’m very partial to**, blurring the genre boundaries to a sticky smuushh – all very post-rock of them. The title track leads off with some almost tentative drumming before a guitar figure loops in behind the beats which make more and more sense as the whole band stealthily enter the fray, ‘TNT’ actually ends up being the most rousing, the most conventional tune on offer here. The aforementioned drumming from John McEntire (I’m guessing, the band are a bit coy about who plays what) is wonderful and restless but the show is stolen by Rob Mazurek’s perfectly judged trumpet.
Did I say TNT was more organic? well, it is and it isn’t. If I was one of them fancy astute blogger types^ I’d probably correct myself and tell you that Tortoise may just have become more discreet in using manipulation and effects here and there, if you listen to the swinging, umm, ‘Swung From The Gutters’ there is all manner of phasing and glitching being perpetrated right there, it works too. As do the dublike effects on ‘The Equator’, oh and the conjured skittering beats on ‘The Jetty’.
My very favourite track on the album, one of my real favourite pieces of instrumental music even is ‘Ten Day Interval’. This is music straight from the table of Steve Reich, I just love every finely-judged nanosecond of it, it just transports me the way only the very best music can. Never have so many xylophones (or are they glockenspiels? I may never know) sounded so righteous to me, although sister track ‘Four Day Interval’ may run it quite close. This is currently the fourth most played track on my iTunes^^.
I’m not trying to review TNT track-by-track but I also love the next track ‘I Set My Face To The Hillside’ which rides out of the sunset coyly flaunting Gallic jazz charms and slight spaghetti Western theme touches. I also don’t think there is any blasphemy attached to my theory that the snappily titled, ‘In Sarah, Mencken, Christ And Beethoven There Were Women And Men’ snuggles up next to (horror of horrors!) easy listening – but what else can you say about a track that so readily conjures up smartly dressed sophisticates cocktailing their way through an impressive sunset? and anyway, who doesn’t look great in a white fedora?
TNT is by no means a perfect LP though, I find it a bit overlong and so my attention slides across the vinyl like an overfluffed stylus towards the last side of the album. Equally, a change of tone would be good; a thousand^* pleasing mini-variations, quirks and nuances abound but the whole record operates within the same mid-tonal range, would a breakout have hurt so much? now I’m not advocating that they all get their drinks on, put their feet up on the monitors and crank out ‘We’re An American Band’ but some pitch variety would have been welcome, a little more earthiness and grit in the shell.
TNT is, of course, brilliantly packaged by the band and Thrill Jockey. I love the doodle on the cassette inlay that became the LP cover, again it is another statement of difference from Millions Now Living…, essentially take your opaque, beautifully rendered, sleek cover and stick it – this is a very different gig. It is, they are right.
Tortoise live, no fire-breathing midgets or animatronic robots visible:
*one of my fave LPs ever and it’s also in that book thing that has possessed Geoff.
**nope, not the LP cover nudity thing, I meant the other thing.
^you know the ones, they have beards, wire-rimmed glasses and actually manage to look cool in a suit jacket and jeans, rather than just looking like a dick.
^^just how ‘Ten day Interval’ gets on with its neighbours on the list, Downset ‘Sangre De Mis Manos’ and Sepultura ‘Ratamahatta’, is not recorded.
^*figures not verified at time of going to press, true figure may only be 985-ish. Terms and conditions apply, calls charged at 45p/minute make sure you have the bill payer’s permission.