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The sound of Tortoise can't be pigeonholed. Like the fusion jazz artists of the '70s who traversed across rock and jazz forms with time-signature shifts, the Chicago quintet -- John Herndon, Doug McCombs, Dan Bitney, Jeff Parker, and John McEntire -- makes instrumental music with everything but the kitchen sink.
"I have trouble describing our music to people," admits bassist McCombs, who co-founded Tortoise with Herndon in 1990. "We're a rock band. Maybe a fairly unconventional rock band, but we use a lot of the same signifiers as a typical rock band."
This approach has yielded a wealth of critical response. Released in 1996, Millions Now Living Will Never Die led to the group's coronation as kings of the post-rock set, a dubious moniker meant to define bands such as Stereolab and Trans Am, who bled between genre borders. Millions was also one of the first American rock albums to refurbish the experimental electronic styles emanating from Europe via Aphex Twin and Oval; it made that music safe for indie-rock kids.
On subsequent albums, including TNT and Standards, Tortoise strayed from the post-punk pace that defined Millions' standout track, "Djed," and jumped into rhythms that uneasily shifted among hard rock, jazz, and ambient. Its latest, It's All Around You, is positively pastoral at times; it's a mood piece in ten parts and illustrated by ultravivid artwork of digitally manipulated streams, forests, and breathtaking skies. McCombs identifies a "weird undercurrent" running through the album, a sense of dislocation keenly felt on the track "Unknown" and its psychedelic, distorted guitar effects.
Despite its reluctance to adhere to a certain sound, Tortoise has been successful outside the indie marketplace. The same goes for many of the Chicago-area bands with whom it shares members, an ever-multiplying collective that includes the pop-rock revolutionaries Sea and Cake and jazz experimentalists Isotope 217.
Which leads to the question: Is there a distinct Windy City sound swirling in the ether? Or is it just a coincidence that the recent albums of several Chicago acts -- including Telefon Tel Aviv's Map of What Is Effortless, Slicker's The Latest, Stereolab's Margerine Eclipse, and Chicago Underground Trio's Slon -- are elegiac mood pieces similar to It's All Around You?
"I don't think there's any one specific Chicago sound," McCombs muses. "I don't really know [Telefon Tel Aviv], but there are tons of other musicians here that I consider my close friends that I have a lot in common with," he adds. "Consequently, there might be some kind of common element to our music."
Then there's Savath and Savalas, one of a handful of pseudonyms used by producer Guillermo Scott Herren. Half a world away in Barcelona, Spain, where he had moved from his native Atlanta in 2001, Herren was working on a series of demos with friend and amateur vocalist Eva Puyuelo Muns.
After finishing the album, Herren sought out Tortoise's Herndon and McEntire for post-production help. The duo, along with several other musicians, augmented the tracks at McEntire's Soma Studios. "I knew that John McEntire would mix it with respect for the music," Herren says admiringly. "He listens to that kind of music, and he knows the sounds. His studio is completely analog, and I didn't want it to be digital or electronic."
The resulting Apropa't, amazingly, sounds in tune with the aforementioned Chicago recordings. "With the Savath shit, there's nothing freaked on the computer; there's nothing programmed," Herren says. But he acknowledges that all three albums have a slow, melodic tone. "I've always been influenced by what John Herndon does, " he admits. "Just like with your friends, you feed off what each one does. You have similarities. That's kinda why you kick it."
Apropa't isn't a radical departure for Herren, who has always emphasized varying degrees of melody and beauty in his music. The first Savath and Savalas album, 2000's Folk Songs for Trains, Trees and Honey, possessed a similar sense of wonder and reflection. Under the moniker Delarosa and Asora, he tempered those melodies with computer-programming effects, leading to the stop-start suites of Agony Pt. 1, released on Schematic in 2001. That same year found him unveiling his most successful alias, Prefuse 73, and Vocal Studies and Uprock Narratives. In fact, Prefuse's extremely popular arsenal of jump cuts, hip-hop editing techniques, and processed funk has tended to influence opinion regarding Apropa't.
"I've read some shit where, like, they were saying some shit like, 'Oh, so this is what he's doing now? He quit doing Prefuse to do this?'" Herren says. "Why can't people do multiple things?" He even takes exception with the way some promoters have trumpeted dates on Savath and Savalas' current tour -- where a full band joins Herren and Muns -- with the note "featuring Prefuse 73." "It's just stupid," he says. "It's a totally different thing. I'm not trying to profit off that name with this. I don't want kids to go to Savath and Savalas thinking it's [going to be] Prefuse."
Ironically, Tortoise's It's All Around You is also receiving mixed reviews, though the response to it hasn't been as polarized as those for Apropa't. Being a critic's darling can be a hazardous profession.