Tortoise – Tortoise

3 out of 5

Label: Thrill Jockey

Produced by: John McEntire, Bundy K. Brown

Well established by now that I am a crappy music critic. As I sift around for reviews of Tortoise’s first album, I get lost in all the praise, unable to find someone with whom to commiserate: that I don’t know if I get this disc? That I possibly find it boring as hell? 

I owned this disc, as a dutiful indie music dude, for years, and remember really digging the smooth, boppy jazz of its opening tracks – and I still do! – and then, y’know, drawing a blank thereafter. Is there more music after track three? And even after giving it another go, several more times, and knowing there are ten tracks, and even kind of nodding my head to the rare breakouts above the snoozy burbles of vague electronics and bass and slowroll drums, I can hardly remember what this disc actually sounds like. 

On the one hand, the slickness here is mostly insane. The lack of interruption, despite the album covering a fair amount of moods (relative to “chill”) while turning up the volume here and there is impressive: the way things are blended and folded over again and again such that it’s impossible to tell where the post rock and lite iazz begin and end… it admittedly just feels pretty cool. Except I don’t get anything out of this, which I might from jazz, or drone, which ‘Tortoise’ touches on. The music isn’t immersive so much as existent: the band smiling at you as you wander into their living room, watching them jam, staying for a song or two, and wander back out. There’s structure on those openers, giving us a slow build to some backing of bass and drums, then the album vibes out into chilly tones, and cinematic sass. It sometimes works. Otherwise, though the way blind alleys are frequently half-explored and abandoned makes the majority of this feel… aimless.

And so I wander to a conclusion: that I still don’t get the praise. I get it on Tortoise’s later discs, and my more studied listen of this album makes me feel like they revisited and perfected its flows on Standards, a much later, and better (to me) album, but at this point, it’s a lot of effort to sound as unnoticeable as possible.