The sound of Tortoise defies categorization. Like the fusion jazz artists of the Seventies who traversed rock and jazz forms with time signature shifts, the Chicago quintet -- John Herndon, Doug McCombs, Dan Bitney, Jeff Parker, and John McEntire -- makes instrumental music with everything but the break-room sink in the record store, albeit with a rock foundation.
"I have trouble describing our music to people," admits McCombs during a brief phone interview from somewhere in New York City. "We're a rock band. Maybe a fairly unconventional rock band, but we use a lot of the same signifiers as a typical rock band," adds the bassist, who founded Tortoise with Herndon in 1990.
This facility for generating multiple interpretations through crafting multilayered, even multigenre, compositions has yielded Tortoise a wealth of critical response, an arbiter of its high standing in the alternative (re: nonmainstream) pantheon. Released in 1996, Millions Now Living Will Never Die led to the quintet's coronation as kings of the postrock set, a dubious moniker meant to define bands such as Stereolab and Trans Am that bled between genre borders. Among its other feats, Millions was one of the first American rock albums to refurbish the experimental electronic styles emanating from Europe via Aphex Twin and Oval; it made that music safe for indie-rock listeners, even if they continued to dismiss traditional dance music until the emergence of disco punk several years later.
On subsequent albums, including TNT and Standards, Tortoise strayed from the cool postpunk pace that defined Millions' standout track, "Djed," into rhythms that uneasily shifted between hard rock, jazz, and ambient. Its latest, It's All Around You, is positively pastoral at times, a mood piece segmented into ten parts and illustrated by its artwork: an ultravivid, digitally manipulated collage of streams, forests, and breathtaking skies. In other words, paradise ignored, or maligned. McCombs identifies a "weird undercurrent" running throughout the album, a sense of dislocation keenly felt on "Unknown" and its psychedelic, distorted guitar effects.
Tortoise's body of work is galvanizing because, save for a few tracks that have been licensed by corporations such as Calvin Klein, it is successfully posited outside the pop marketplace. The same goes for many of the Chicago-area bands with whom it shares members, an ever-multiplying collection that includes the pop-rock revolutionaries the Sea and Cake and jazz experimentalists Isotope 217.
Which leads to the question: Is there a distinct Windy City sound swirling in the ether? Or is it just a coincidence that several top Chicago acts, including Telefon Tel Aviv (Map of What Is Effortless), Slicker (The Latest), Stereolab (Margerine Eclipse), and Chicago Underground Trio (Slon), have released elegiac mood pieces similar to It's All Around You in the past four months?
"I don't think there's any one specific Chicago sound," muses McCombs, "but there is some kind of common experience [between people] who live and make music in Chicago that may translate to some common experience.
"I don't really know [Telefon Tel Aviv], but there are tons of other musicians [in Chicago] that I consider my close friends, that I have a lot in common with," he adds. "Consequently, there might be some kind of common element to our music."
Then there's Savath & Savalas, one of a handful of pseudonyms used by producer Guillermo Scott Herren. Half a world away in Barcelona, Spain, where he had moved from his native Atlanta in 2001, Herren was working on a series of demos with friend and amateur vocalist Eva Puyuelo Muns.
After finishing the album, Herren sought out Herndon and McEntire for postproduction help. The duo, along with several other musicians, augmented the tracks at McEntire's Soma Studios, completing the album's warm analog feel. "I knew that John McEntire would mix it with respect for the music," Herren says admiringly. "He listens to that kind of music and he knows the sounds. His studio is completely analog, and I didn't want it to be digital or electronic."
The resulting Apropa't, amazingly, sounds in tune with the aforementioned Chicago recordings. Herren points out that many of those artists, particularly Telefon Tel Aviv and Slicker, made their current albums with computers, while Apropa't was recorded in analog.
"With the Savath shit, there's nothing freaked on the computer, there's nothing programmed," he says. But he acknowledges that all three albums have a slow, melodic tone. "I've always been influenced by what John Herndon does, " he admits. "Just like with your friends, you feed off what each one does. You have similarities. That's kinda why you kick it."
Apropa't isn't a radical departure for Herren, who has always emphasized varying degrees of melody and beauty in his music. The first Savath & Savalas album, 2000's Folk Songs for Trains, Trees and Honey, possessed a similar sense of wonder and reflection; tellingly, its album cover depicted an image of someone staring out an airport window. As Delarosa and Asora, he tempered those melodies with computer programming effects, leading to the stop-start suites of Agony Pt. 1 , released on Schematic in 2001. That same year found him unveiling his most successful alias, Prefuse 73, and Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives. In fact Prefuse's extremely popular arsenal of jump cuts, hip-hop editing techniques, and processed funk has tended to influence opinion regarding Apropa't.
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"I've read some shit where, like, they were saying some shit like, 'Oh, so this is what he's doing now? He quit doing Prefuse to do this?'" says Herren. "Why can't people do multiple things?" He even takes exception to the way some promoters have trumpeted dates on Savath & Savalas's current tour -- where a full band joins Herren and Muns -- with the note "featuring Prefuse 73." "It's just stupid. It's a totally different thing. I'm not trying to profit off that name with this," he complains. "I don't want kids to go to Savath & Savalas thinking it's [going to be] Prefuse."
The sonorous, occasionally challenging Apropa't, on which Muns (with Herren on background harmony vocals) sings in Catalan, is maddeningly abstract in some parts, and much of it is beatless, floating in space. The group's ballads, meanwhile, reflect a mishmash of influences, from Spanish guitarist Paco Ibañez to Brazilian artist Milton Nascimento. Like Brazilian folk star Caetano Veloso's work, it is lovely and subdued, a low hum that, if not heard under optimal conditions, seems to fade into the noise and static of everyday living.
Ironically, Tortoise's It's All Around You is also receiving mixed reviews, though the response to it hasn't been as polarized (backlash?) as those for Apropa't. It seems as if being a critic's darling can be a hazardous profession.
Tortoise, Ex-Models, and Beans perform at 9:00 p.m. Friday, April 30, at the Polish American Club, 1250 NW 22nd Ave. Tickets cost $16. Call 305-635-2240. Savath & Savalas performs with Juana Molina and Nobody during the Transatlantic Festival at 8:00 p.m. Wednesday, May 5, at I/O, 30 NE 14th St. Tickets cost $20. Call 305-672-5202.