Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tortoise - Spiderwebbed

Tortoise - "Spiderwebbed"

Been thinking a lot about this band and what they've meant to me and to others over the past decade and a half. I didn't discover them until TNT in 1998, but that's probably been the most formative album I own, shaping my tastes and ideas about music more than any other recording. That's not to say that I became a post-rock fanboy or fancied them as one of the Greatest Bands of Our Generation or anything like that. Rather, and I realize it's become a cliché at this point, they really broke down the barriers between the worlds of rock, electronic music, jazz, etc. This was a lot more meaningful then than it sounds today.

Always held TNT in the highest regard, "DJed" housing a sick number of their best moments but not enough to raise Millions Now Living Will Never Die above it. Remixed was a landmark album and anyone who disagrees needs to have their Girl Talk and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah albums ground into powder and taken as a rectal suppository (impossible, I know, as none of these kids buy CDs anyway). Standards isn't as good as listeners thought it was when it came out. It's All Around You isn't anywhere as bad as critics said it was. And the new album is fucking great, and I say this as someone who wasn't expecting much of anything from it.

So there they are, and it's been about 11 years since I started listening to them. Despite my continuing fondness, I've tended to overlook their debut album, thinking of it more as a demo of sorts, necessary experiments they needed to take to find their "real" sound, a dense and sometimes difficult record that doesn't lend itself to the mental landscapes that further albums would paint. Now and then it's graced with a few kind words: the once-reputable Alternative Press ranking it #64 on their Greatest Albums of the 90s list/issue, Woebot placing it at #65 on his 100 Greatest Records Ever list. but since it was released in 1994, it's been eclipsed by its successors, never really lapsing into enough obscurity to ever be properly "rediscovered," maybe like Kraftwerk's Radio Activity, respected and enjoyed but seen as a stepping stone to more accessible and melodic breakthroughs, the more playable and "well-rounded" Millions and TNT.

Taking some time to return to this album now, maybe more willing to slowly absorb it than I used to be, and really feeling it for the first time this autumn. The mallet-driven Reich-isms of later albums are still in an embryonic state, melodies and cinematic flourishes not quite as distinct at this point. Later albums would conjure up sweeping Technicolor soundscapes either through the music itself or by song titles like "The Suspension Bridge at IguazĂș Falls" and album covers like this. By contrast, the debut sounds like it was recorded in a series of underground tunnels. Like the songs, some impossibly vast and open, others claustrophobically confining. The band plays with a simple and snappy dubbed-out funk on most tracks, playful (despite their reputation at the time as stoic, robo-Kraftwerk clones) but understated in a way that's unfamiliar to "indie" music or experimental rock today. What constitutes a generational gap? Is 15 years enough time? This music isn't mindblowingly difficult, inaccessible, or from all that long ago but at this point it sounds like it might as well be from another world.

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