Tortoise – The Catastrophist

4 out of 5

Label: Thrill Jockey

Produced by: John McEntire

Tortoise – for those getting into the music-lovin’ biz after the fact – are another one of those indie music staples, the kind of name-drop-I-downloaded-their-discography-and-listened-to-it-once mainstays of whom you’re aware, but are easily passed over in favor of other, shinier releases.  Not that they’re small potatoes by any means; they’re classics, and have the dedicated following deserving of that.  However, this is one of those during-my-lifetime instances where I feel like I got to witness something grow and expand in surprising ways over the years, but what’s been unique to Tortoise is that they always feel so chill about it.  And I couldn’t have predicted it based on their debut, but this is the group whose influential tendrils can be seen all throughout the infinite branches of the indie scene – if not directly, then almost certainly a couple or few steps removed.

Still: Chill.  It’s not the comparatively vocal presence of Steve Albini, or the long-lost group who reconvenes for press and a magical return album, it’s just Tortoise: poking and prodding at jazz and electro and, I dunno, dub, evolving post-rock into what it became, album by album, on their own time.

And Catasrophist is like the most chill thing yet, but also incredibly exciting: It manages to convey a nervy energy despite its laid-back pace, as though the group is just so pleased with their well-earned collective groove that the joy of playing together shines through.

Maybe part of it is the almost cutesy theme that bubbles up at album’s start – – and on short tracks Gopher Island.  The tune is almost retro video gamey, but Tortoise tend not to do the kitsch thing and that’s not how it comes across; instead, nabbing the zeal and, to an extent, key tone of something 16-bit era, the group whips up ditties that are a perfect outlet for a 2016 edition of the band.  This base layer is fleshed out on the following tracks, manipulating (as always) the pace so that we start poppy then get aggressive and then chill (Ox Duke), or jumble that script to build up to something delightfully fuzzy and heavy, as on closer At Odds With Logic.  The varying tone, while circulating around that bopping theme established at the start, manages to zip through different Tortoise eras as well, with the Standards-esque Tesseract, and the self-titled minimalism of The Clearing Fills… although the latter’s extension into an almost drone-like trance is something of a dull thud in the middle of the album.

The Catastrophist suffers from some repetition, focused on different permutations of a particular sound, but thankfully that sound is rendered into something miraculously catchy in its various versions, effected by a band that rolls out complex compositions with light-handed finesse.  The album may not dig as deep as some Tortoise discs, but this also allows it to be a really breezy and fun listen, entrancing with its energy in the same way that TNT shook us awake back in the day.