Tortoise’s The Catastrophist, the mighty Chicago jazz-rock outfit’s first record in seven long years, will leave longtime listeners — after 25 years, there are many — in two minds of themselves.

First off, there’s some solid material herein and that’s easy to notice. Why? Well, part of it’s obvious. In 2010, take it away Thrill Jockey PR people, ”the group was commissioned by the City of Chicago to compose a suite of music rooted in its ties to the area’s noted jazz and improvised music communities.” End there for now. The spark lit quite the fire and tracks like ”Shake Hands With Danger” and ”The Clearing Fills” reveal the band in fine form. Stand-out ”Shake Hands With Danger,” seemingly straight-forward with all of its slinking underbelly, stirs up quite a racket, indeed.

Elsewhere, however, they can sound mediocre. Or, better put, mediocre on Tortoise terms. Here I’m looking at lazy genre twists like the vaguely surf-and-sway ”At Odds With Logic,” which, while interesting, seems too obvious for the band to wrestle. Elsewhere, the band falls back on old formulas and old forays. It’s not stale. It just ain’t fresh.

Two other tracks on the record leave me utterly puzzled: ”Yonder Blue,” a pretty soul-ish ballad (kudos on guest vocals from Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley) that seems more appropriate for Eleventh Dream Day; and the single ”Gesceap,“ which is a piece of goddamn genius, a knotty wire of twisted electronica, and deserves a better record around it. Both are good songs ill-suited for The Catastrophist, even with a madman’s mind for sequencing or mixing/remixing. They deserve better.

And this says nothing of a trip-glue bass-and-vocal cover of the 1973 David Essex-penned radio smash ”Rock On,” which sounds as weird as you’d imagine it to be.

Brass tacks: Tortoise always has been great at presenting the unexpected. When folks thought they couldn’t ride the wave of jazz rhythms and clusters forever, they started experimenting with dub. Standards was a landmark. So was TNT. Oh my, ”Djed!” Christ, it seems like every one of the band’s records for a while there was a new statement of purpose. Beacons of Ancestorship, its last, was a decent record, and so is Catastrophist. The fires still are burning on torches in Tortoise land — don’t fret. But not every one can take down the entire palace.


About the Author

Justin Vellucci

Justin Vellucci is a former staffer at Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines like American Songwriter and PopMatters, alt-weeklies such as Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper, and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish and Linoleum, and the Gannett publication Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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