Tortoiseâ€™s The Catastrophist, the mighty Chicago jazz-rock outfitâ€™s first record in seven long years, will leave longtime listeners â€“ after 25 years, there are many â€“ in two minds of themselves.
First off, thereâ€™s some solid material herein and thatâ€™s easy to notice. Why? Well, part of itâ€™s obvious. In 2010, take it away Thrill Jockey PR people, â€œthe group was commissioned by the City of Chicago to compose a suite of music rooted in its ties to the areaâ€™s noted jazz and improvised music communities.â€ End there for now. The spark lit quite the fire and tracks like â€œShake Hands With Dangerâ€ and â€œThe Clearing Fillsâ€ reveal the band in fine form. Stand-out â€œShake Hands With Danger,â€ 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 Iâ€™m looking at lazy genre twists like the vaguely surf-and-sway â€œAt Odds With Logic,â€ which, while interesting, seems too obvious for the band to wrestle. Elsewhere, the band falls back on old formulas and old forays. Itâ€™s not stale. It just ainâ€™t fresh.
Two other tracks on the record leave me utterly puzzled: â€œYonder Blue,â€ a pretty soul-ish ballad (kudos on guest vocals from Yo La Tengoâ€™s Georgia Hubley) that seems more appropriate for Eleventh Dream Day; and the single â€œGesceap,â€ 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 madmanâ€™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 â€œRock On,â€ which sounds as weird as youâ€™d imagine it to be.
Brass tacks: Tortoise always has been great at presenting the unexpected. When folks thought they couldnâ€™t ride the wave of jazz rhythms and clusters forever, they started experimenting with dub. Standards was a landmark. So was TNT. Oh my, â€œDjed!â€ Christ, it seems like every one of the bandâ€™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 â€“ donâ€™t fret. But not every one can take down the entire palace.