Tortoise, "Beacons of Ancestorship"

June 16, 2009


Fifteen years after its self-titled debut, in what we might now call the "post-post-rock era," the automatic waves of hyperbolic praise that once greeted any new release from the Chicago instrumental collective Tortoise have ebbed, and it's become much easier to hear the band as what it always was: A group of progressive-rock geeks who happened to understand that a good groove beats pointless displays of virtuosity every time, crafting the ideal soundtrack for a pretty but incomprehensible art film that no one will ever make.

This is to say, Tortoise never intended to reinvent the wheel, just have fun spinning it 'round in the studio. Sometimes the results were brilliant--"Djed" from "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" (1996) remains their "21st Century Schizoid Man" or "Close to the Edge"--and sometimes they evoked that annoying hipster Muzak that they play in the lobbies and elevators of W hotels. And the group's sixth proper album and first release in five years does not depart from that mix.

On the plus side are some of the proggiest pieces Tortoise ever has recorded: There are moments during "Prepare Your Coffin," "Penumbra" and "Minors" when you could swear Keith Emerson himself was twirling the knobs of that vintage Moog synthesizer (though it most likely was drummer and Soma Studio owner John McEntire). On the other hand, there are several tunes you could swear you've heard before--isn't "The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One" this band's ninth or tenth Ennio Morricone homage?--and several otherwise promising tracks, including the opening "High Class Slim Came Floatin' In," are needlessly interrupted mid-trance with pointless stylistic detours seemingly designed only to underscore that wow, these guys sure can mix it up. (It's ambient techno! No, it's ironic jazz fusion! Wait, wait, I know--that's cumbia!)

As always, how much all this appeals to you will depend on how much you like spooling that imaginary movie in your head--or how much you enjoy staying at the W.

Pisces, "A Lovely Sight"

Though it's primarily known for its "eccentric soul" reissues, the founders of Chicago's Numero Group label also have a deep and abiding love for the wildly inventive and genre-blurring qualities of vintage psychedelic rock, and with their latest release, they've unearthed as brilliant a buried treasure as I've ever heard from the fertile period that followed "Sgt. Pepper's" and the much-vaunted Summer of Love.

Hardly a hippie haven, the psychedelic trip as interpreted in Rockford, Ill., circa 1969 was darker, grittier and on occasion more sinister and threatening than anything heard in sunny San Francisco--not for nothing does Numero describe the group of studio musicians who called themselves Pisces as aiming for "the Beatles and Jefferson Airplane, but somehow sounding more like the Velvet Underground's meth'd out Midwest cousin." As with the Thirteenth Floor Elevators, that hint of menace makes the group's journey toward the white light all the more powerful.

Previously heard only on three ultra-rare 45's issued back in the day--the group's one album remained unreleased until this collection--Pisces' other big asset is the warm, robust Earth Mother voice of sometimes vocalist Linda Bruner, who shines on tracks such as the enchanting "Dear One," the lovely "Say Goodbye to John" and the haunting "Sam." The band was not immune to the indulgences of the times--a song like "Mary" sinks under the weight of all that phasing and studio trickery, while the somber spoken-word bit in "Genesis II" would have been better left to the Moody Blues. But overall, the enduring melodies and unique ambience of "A Lovely Sight" sound as vibrant and relevant today as they did four decades ago.