Box Tortoise

On August 22 Thrill Jockey will release the Tortoise box set A Lazarus Taxon–three CDs and one DVD of out-of-print, hard-to-find, and unreleased material from across the band’s career. “We’ve always wanted to collect some of these rare things that have been floating out there,” says bassist Doug McCombs. “We actually talked about doing this like five years ago, but it seemed too early.”

The CDs combine the entirety of the out-of-print 1995 album Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters (guest remixes of early Tortoise material by the likes of Steve Albini, Jim O’Rourke, and Brad Wood) with a batch of bonus tracks from overseas CD releases, several seven- and twelve-inch singles and tour-only discs, a few comp tracks, and a pair of previously unreleased cuts.

“It’s music that not a lot of people have heard that we think is really cool. And stuff that isn’t necessarily like what we do on our albums,” says McCombs. “Like we did an Ellington song for the Red Hot + Indigo compilation, and a couple of my favorite things we’ve ever done are bonus tracks for Japanese album releases.”

One of the unreleased cuts is a Mike Watt remix intended for Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters. His version of “Cornpone Brunch,” from Tortoise’s self-titled 1994 debut album–which Watt referred to at the time as “the brown thing” because of its unbleached cardboard sleeve–arrived late on a damaged DAT and ended up shelved for a decade, until preparations for A Lazarus Taxon got under way and former Tortoise member Bundy Brown went digging for it. “None us had ever even heard it until about four months ago,” says McCombs. “We got this broken DAT–I don’t remember if it was lost in the mail or if it just took Watt a long time to get it to us. But Bundy hung onto it and respooled the tape into a new frame. So we decided to put it on the box set.”

The DVD includes most of the band’s videos–really more like short films–and plenty of live footage, including seven songs from a Toronto show in 1997, when David Pajo was still in the band, Tortoise sharing the stage with Fred Anderson and the Chicago Underground Trio at a German jazz festival in 1999, the group’s Chic-a-Go-Go appearance from 2003, and a performance at a Spanish festival in 2005.

The cover art was licensed from little-known Swiss photographer Arnold Odermatt, a police officer who specialized in stark images of auto accidents. The accompanying 20-page booklet includes many previously unpublished concert photos, as well as a collection of essays about Tortoise from admirers abroad–published without translations in Spanish, German, Japanese, and so on. A Lazarus Taxon will be released in a single edition, with no re-pressings–Thrill Jockey says it’s unlikely the CDs and the DVD will be separated later for individual sale.

Tortoise is also returning to the studio to prepare a follow-up to 2004’s It’s All Around You. “We’ve already started working on it a little bit,” says McCombs, “but we’re gonna try and get it done in earnest over the summer.” The new disc is tentatively scheduled for an April 2007 release.

Record Time for Plush

Liam Hayes spent six years in and out of studios working on the most recent Plush LP, Fed, in the process running up a monstrous tab that forced his label, Drag City, to walk away from the project–and he still wasn’t satisfied with the recordings. So it should come as a relief to Plush fans that Hayes is currently at work on a new disc, Bright Penny, and thinks he might be almost halfway done after just four months of studio time.

Hayes decided to call Fed finished in 2002, but it never received a proper U.S. release–the Japanese label After Hours put it out overseas, so it’s available here only as a costly import. In fall 2004 Drag City’s Sea Note imprint released Underfed, an early sketchbook version of the album, and to celebrate Hayes reunited with drummer Rian Murphy and bassist Russ Bassman–his bandmates till the late 90s, they’d both quit during Fed’s birthing pains–for a show at the Open End Gallery.

Since then Hayes has been roughing out new songs at studios in Los Angeles and at home in Wicker Park. “I’ve been working on it off and on,” he says, “just doing different demos. Some stuff I did in LA a couple years ago, and I’m just kind of bringing it all together. It’s been in pieces and now I have some final tracks.”

Formal sessions for Bright Penny began in December at the New York home studio of Salon music critic Thomas Bartlett, who’s also the keyboardist in the art-pop band Doveman. Hayes is financing and producing the album himself, but Tom Lunt, co-owner of Chicago reissue label the Numero Group, is managing the other aspects of the project as its executive producer. Bright Penny is a full-band affair, and so far the musicians contributing include jazz and soul session drummer Morris Jennings (who also appeared on Fed) and Bob Lizik and Jim Hines, the rhythm section from Brian Wilson’s current backing group. “We might be as much as 40 percent done,” says Hayes, “depending on how some of the recent stuff turned out.”

Though the sessions are scheduled to continue into the summer, it’s unclear when the disc will reach stores. “From the start we wanted this to be a 2006 release,” says Hayes. “That’s what I’m still hoping for, anyway.”

Once the album is finished, Hayes says he’ll switch gears and start thinking about securing a record contract–Lunt has already put out feelers, and several indie labels have responded encouragingly. Hayes is hoping that any deal to release Bright Penny will include a U.S. release for Fed too–he’s recouped some of his expenses after a few years of Japanese sales, so he’ll be able to lower the asking price that drove Drag City away. “Fed is still available. If somebody’s interested, it’s there,” says Hayes. “But my focus right now is mainly on completing this new batch of songs.”

The Continuing Adventures of Emmett Kelly

Local guitar wunderkind Emmett Kelly, profiled in the Meter in January, continues to keep exceptional company. He spent most of the past four months on the road backing Beth Orton, and this winter he was part of the studio band on Then the Letting Go, the forthcoming disc from Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Will Oldham. (Due from Drag City on September 19, it’ll be preceded by the single “Cursed Sleep” on July 25.) The disc was recorded in Iceland by Bjork collaborator Valgeir Sigurdsson; the band also included Jim White of the Dirty Three on drums, Oldham’s brother Paul on bass, and Dawn McCarthy from Faun Fables on vocals. It’s still not clear if Kelly will accompany Oldham on tour this fall, but in the meantime his own project the Cairo Gang will be doing some road work in support of its self-titled debut–originally scheduled for an April release, it comes out on Narnack in July. The Cairo Gang has also landed a plum gig opening for the Fall on May 30 at the Logan Square Auditorium.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Donte Demonte Tatum, Yvette Marie Dostatni.