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Overlooked Alternatives: Lambchop, Ratatat, Tortoise

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Summer is winding to a close in its usual way in Arizona. It's only "mildly" hot, hovering around one hundred five degrees, generally, each day beginning mild but humid. As the day progresses, the clouds to the north and the east grow to tower over the valley, threatening to unleash torrents of rain… for fifteen or twenty minutes. Don't get me wrong – it can be devastating for some. We have little plant life with which to hold the soil, so muddy road flooding is frequent, but sometimes our reactions to rain can get out of hand.

This is the monsoon season, and if you've ever spent any time in Arizona, we act like we're being hit by a hurricane – every day that it rains. Entire newscasts will be devoted to the weather event, to the point that other real news is almost entirely ignored, even if it doesn't actually pan out, which is a frequent occurrence. Given that Phoenix is in a valley, storms often build up only to actually skirt either over top of us or right around the outside. It's a tremendous letdown to spend half your day watching storms looming over the city only to watch them slyly shuffle around and head down to Tucson. We look forward to rain like Seattle looks forward to sun.

I look forward to this time of year, however, because with the end of summer comes the cooler weather, and it means that things start winding up toward the more exciting parts of the year – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and, of course, Christmas. It also means we've lived through another mostly dull summer of music releases, the labels having saved the "little" things for this period to fill out their release schedule. Soon we'll start seeing the list filled with boxsets, DVDs, and best-ofs, some probably just rehashes of things that have been out for years. But that's then. What's up for release right now?

Lambchop – Damaged: Lambchop has always been dark, but this might just be their darkest point yet – and most gorgeous, too. Beginning as an odd alternative country outfit in the early 90s, they have, through the years, slowly transitioned away from those roots to incorporate elements of soul, R&B, jazz, and many other genres, but it seems that in the past few albums "soul and R&B" is what has emerged as the dominant sound. Here, frontman Kurt Wagner has opted to set aside his usual wry lyrical observations and instead plumb the depths of his soul. Wagner's croak has deepened and developed through the years, and here it feels like he's inviting you to hear something no one else should know. Damaged is a beautiful, dramatic album that should find itself on many year-end "best" lists – including mine.

Ratatat – Classics: I found myself strangely enamored of this odd little second album from this guitar/electronics duo. On the one hand, it seems far too simple to be as exciting as I found it – and yet I can't help myself. Drum machines burble their beats, synths sing out sine waves, and the guitar alternately slashes and strums. It just doesn't sound like it could possibly be this fun, but what makes it so return-worthy is that there's a grander sense of beauty imbued in each track than it might seem on the initial listen – when you come back for more, there's truly more to embrace.

Tortoise – A Lazarus Taxon: If you know the term "post-rock," you probably know it because of these guys. Since forming in the early 90s, they've incorporated a little bit of everything that wasn't really straight-ahead rock to create a unique sound that an uncountable number of other bands then came along and stole. Avant-garde jazz and 70s Krautrock are probably the most noticeable influences that form the basis of the Tortoise sound.

While their regular studio albums have been readily available, the band has churned out a number of difficult to find singles and EPs, as well as remixing other bands' projects, and this three-CD, one DVD box is here to solve the problems finding all those rarities. Compiling not only their import remix album Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, but also those hard to find EPs, singles, and other assorted oddities, the DVD includes live footage, videos, and films – and a dirt-cheap price that equates to about a regular single CD price. You can't beat that.

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About Tom Johnson

  • Mark Saleski

    Tortoise: yay!

    postrock. that word has always sorta bugged me but hey, what DO you call things like Tortoise and Godspeed You Black Emperor?

  • zingzing

    mmm, bastard children of slint and talk talk?

  • Mark Saleski

    Talk, Talk? i pretty sure i never heard anything they did after that first single “Talk, Talk” way back in the 80’s. vaguely Duran Duran-ish, if i remember.

  • http://www.knownjohnson.com Tom Johnson

    But then they went all prog-rock spacy, pretty much overnight. I keep hoping to stumble upon the import remasters of Spirit of Eden and Laughing Stock for cheap, but those are the two you should be looking out for, Mark – they have more in common with David Sylvian than Duran Duran. You won’t believe your ears – they don’t sound anything like the “Talk Talk” Talk Talk – and that’s a good thing!

  • zingzing

    mmhmm. that’s them. go look them up. they went from duran duran openers (duran duran–talk talk… get it?) to roxy music (“it’s my life”) rip-offs (but good at that) to complex world-pop-jazz-etc (“living in another world”) to improvised atmospheric classical-jazz-drugged out meloncholy bliss (“spirit of eden”) to a perfection of the same, but with more emphasis on improv and atmosphere and drugs (“laughing stock”) within 9 years. “new grass” (from “laughing stock”) is one of the most sublime bits of music ever recorded. as far as bands stretching away from their origins, they are only equalled by the beatles and radiohead, and yet their music probably opened more doors (not for bands, but for music in general) than either of those other two bands.

    definitely one of the most underappreciated and overwhelmingly influential rock/pop bands out there, and they got better with each release. go look them up at allmusic.com (a great site if you don’t know about it… but you probably do).

  • zingzing

    check the url for new grass. utterly beautiful. and buetifully utteral.

  • zingzing

    nope won’t let me. ahh well. no mp3 links in the urls? too bad.