The closest to punk I come is a love of Fugazi, and I really do my best to not saddle them with the “punk” description (and really, they’re not punk – they’re emo.) They are far too thoughtful as musicians, far too interested in creating thought-provoking music, to simply dump them into such a limited and limiting category. Anyone familiar with music critics knows that the 70s boom of punk is a favored period, for punk came in an destroyed what atrocities were being committed upon music at the time (disco, namely, but also the increasingly meaningless parade of prog-rock concept-albums.) I think, in a roundabout way, we may be able to attritribute Phil Collins’ butchering of Genesis by the early 80s to the reaction of listeners to punk. It’s not such a stretch of the imagination to conclude that Phil & Co. realized their 8-10 minute epics were sadly a thing of the past and instead should focus on dance-pop and insipid ballads. They had bills to pay too.
I, however, am not into punk. Those familiar with punk will find it humorous that on a recent CD buying trip I picked up a 2 CD set of Friction, who were not the Friction that I had in mind when I laid down my cash. No, when I saw “Friction” a brief memory of a really interesting band who mysteriously had a collection on jazz/avant-garde freak John Zorn’s label. This Friction, however, was not the really interesting band, nor did this particular collection contain anything really all that interesting to me. For it’s time, the punk Friction might have been a bit forward thinking, as it predates the Bad Religion clones we hear today. Given a choice, I would happily listen to punk descended from the Bad Religion branch of the anarchist tree – the other choice seemingly being limited these days to the “happy” pop-punk that sprouts from the stunted growth that is Green Day’s side of the tree. Green Day seemed to agree, as they slowly evolved into a Bad Religion inspired band as fans slipped away from them.
I worked at a sort-of music store in college. We really sold music-shirts (but also a collection of tempting bootlegs) and the pre-requisite Dr. Martens boots – you weren’t cool unless you had a pair. I wasn’t cool. One shirt we had was the very popular “This Is Not A Fugazi Shirt” shirt, worn by punk/emo/music fans everywhere. Fugazi is one of those bands who are anti-commecialization, opting instead to sacrifice their profits to make sure the music gets out to fans. CDs are marked with both their price as well as an address to send money to buy it, in case your local record store won’t follow their insistance on the $10- and $11.99 max sticker price, and their live shows are legendarily still priced as low as can be – I recall seeing prices of $6, $10, $12 for shows that have come here over the years. Fugazi also did not sell merchandise like t-shirts, because they were a ripoff to fans and went against their ethic. Someone, however, cleverly decided to sell not-Fugazi shirts and as such, they were bootleg shirts that are perfectly legal. Nowhere on the shirt does it claim it IS a Fugazi shirt, and makes the point obvious in big, bold blue letters. But in doing so, it aserts that it is indeed a Fugazi shirt, just as does Magritte’s painting of a tobacco pipe, titled Ceci n’est pas une pipe (“this is not a pipe”). (I won’t get into the fact that his work really is not a pipe, but a painting of a pipe. It doesn’t suit my purpose here, but poses all kinds of interesting philosophical questions that I’ll let you ponder.)
Talk of punk, Magritte, and John Zorn aside, this is not a Fugazi review.
Label: Thrill Jockey
I suppose the most effective argument I could make to indicate that this album got under my skin is that during the fourth track, titled “Onions Wrapped in Rubber,” I was imagining scenes from the 1986 sci-fi thriller Aliens. Static-ridden visions of the Marines making their way through the dark recesses of the powerplant crossed my mind as the dull bass and drums ebbed and flowed in a mesmerising pattern. A chiming beep sounds throughout the track, further bringing to mind images from Aliens – the Marines located moving Aliens on handheld scanners that would beep in a similar fashion. The decisive moment came when I glimpsed a dark shape out of the corner of my eye and nearly jumped – heart pounding for just a moment – until I realized that the shape I saw leaning toward me was my jacket.
This is not to say that Tortoise is filled with “scary” music – it simply evokes a mood, and that track happened to be just enough on the creepy side to put the spook in me. The rest of the album is generally much less sinister, preferring instead to lean toward “introspective” via slowly building instrumental tracks (some may have vocals far in the background, but they aren’t lyrics and simply add to the atmosphere.) Each track takes its time as instruments are gathered from silence, and often the same rhythms and motifs are simply repeated over and over until all instruments have taken their places on the sound stage. This is the kind of music that has to find the correct place to be heard. It doesn’t demand attention necessarily, because the music fills in its own blanks, but it deserves solitude to really appreciate it. In other words, this is “stroke your goatee and say ‘hmm, yes, this is intriguing‘” record-shop geek music. Luckily, I have the required goatee and a love of wandering the aisles in record shops.
Closing track “Cornpone Brunch” opens with the same snippet of 60′s BBC radio commercial that The Who’s Sell Out does (just before crashing into the careening mayhem of “Armenia City In The Sky,”) making me realize that this may have been for an effect – Tortoise is precisely not The Who. Just what that means, I don’t know exactly, but it made me make the comparison momentarily, even if nothing came of it. Which is a suitable way to sum up this album – it won’t come in and shock you with brave new statements but it slowly creeps into your consciousness. And maybe lays an egg there – but maybe that’s just Aliens again.
As indie-rock as Tortoise may be, as far as I know, they sell t-shirts.