TORTOISE | A Lazarus Taxon Tortoise’s new four-disc box set–which collects remixes by and of the band, bonus tracks, compilation appearances, and other rarities–might not seem like the best lens through which to view their accomplishments. But in some ways it’s the ideal one.
Bands that have been around as long as Tortoise, especially when they’re local, are easy to take for granted. And when their early innovations have been as completely absorbed by other musicians as Tortoise’s have, with time they can come to seem less impressive. A few of the remixes and more than a few of the bonus tracks on A Lazarus Taxon now seem disposable (that’s the nature of bonus tracks, I guess), but one of the things that distinguished Tortoise back in the day was their willingness to revisit and rerevisit their own music. I love how some of the singles and comp tracks make whole new tunes out of little bits of other ones. For instance, not one but two here derive from the Duophonic 12-inch cut “Cliff Dweller Society,” an epic 15-minute collage of discrete, mostly improvised sections: “Why We Fight,” a 1995 single on Soul Static Sound, transforms a spare section of taut, stuttering drum beats and rising and falling bell tones with a lyrical bass line and electronically processed echoes; “Source of Uncertainty,” a track from the Mo’ Wax compilation Headz 2, is an alternate mix of “Why We Fight” with synthetic bass smudges and a dubbed-out feel.
The third disc here is the out-of print album Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters–a whole LP of remixes of the band’s eponymous 1994 debut–plus an extra remix by Minutemen bassist Mike Watt that hadn’t arrived yet when it was time to finalize the record. That record was pretty radical for its time: while dance music producers had been remixing music for decades, usually to enhance its club or radio friendliness, Tortoise was one of the first rock bands to embrace the remix as a compositional tool. That helped them earn an undeserved reputation as humorless or even pretentious (any group that tries to be progressive or ambitious will eventually get called one of those) and inspired a remarkable number of cracks about “wire-rimmed glasses,” which none of them actually wears.
There aren’t many remixes on the set from the band’s last half decade. On their most recent albums–Standards (2001) and It’s All Around You (2004)–Tortoise has matured, assimilating their ideas into a rock-solid composite that to some extent obviates the need for the constant rethinking they used to do. Around the time of Standards, not coincidentally, is also when they really kicked it up a notch as a live act (though several of the earlier performances on the fourth disc, which is a DVD, are pretty stirring, including two cuts taped at the Deutsches Jazz Festival in 1999 with the Chicago Underground Trio and Fred Anderson). But A Lazarus Taxon captures the band as a work-in-progress, and there’s something about that initial period of risk taking that will always be special. Plus, at around $20, it costs less than you might pay for just the Duophonic 12-inch on eBay. –Peter Margasak
DEAD MOON | Echoes of the Past Here’s what I always think when people ask why the Rolling Stones don’t just retire while they’ve still got some dignity: dignity’s got nothing to do with rock ‘n’ roll. First of all, people who can make millions of dollars with little or no effort very rarely find a compelling reason to stop doing so. And if that little bit of work entails having a stadium full of people watching you, worshipping you, maybe even thinking about sleeping with you even though you’re in your 60s? Why would you ever want to quit?
But what if you never got famous and never would, and at your shows the only people drooling over you were record-collecting geeks? Fred Cole’s been making records as long as the Stones: when he started Dead Moon with his wife, Toody, in 1987, the first single he’d cut was already 23 years old. But their first recordings came out as raw and powerful as anything any teenager was doing at the time–lean chord arrangements powered by punk’s muscular aggression, with Cole howling like Robert Plant gone feral. One of those songs, “Graveyard,” opens Echoes of the Past, a two-disc career retrospective Cole assembled for Sub Pop, and over the course of 45 more cuts, up through stuff from 2001’s Trash and Burn, you can hear subtle variations on the template. (Cole chose not to include anything from their last two records, despite the killerness of 2004’s Dead Ahead.) Like a shark or something, their sound is so perfectly efficient that it doesn’t need to evolve. “I’ve been screaming at the top of my lungs since 1965,” Cole reminds listeners on 1994’s “Poor Born.” Why would he ever want to quit? –Miles Raymer
WHEN Fri 9/29, 7 and 10 PM
WHERE Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
INFO 773-276-3600, emptybottle.com
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Ed Goralnick, James Warden.