For several semesters now, Tortoise has served as the metaphorical grad assistant of indie rock. You know the pale, aging guy who discusses deconstructionist paradigms for fun. So normally, rock critics, being overeducated in the ways of music and feeling a bit superior ourselves, would be all over Tortoise's teamup with indie-folk crown prince Will Oldham, a.k.a. Bonnie Billy. But cover-song albums are music's equivalent of the pro wrestling headlock valuable for midcareer performers in need of a breath before the real action resumes. Tori Amos, Cat Power, and Firewater have all tried their hand in the past half-decade; none approaches consistency. Sure, there's a track or two of inspiration, but at this pace, the covers collection will soon challenge iTunes as the fastest way to kill off the full-length album.
So despite, or maybe because of, the most eclectic collection of tunes so far this year, including compressed renditions of Springsteen's "Thunder Road," Elton John's "Daniel," a Don Williams song not written by Don Williams, and an opener sung in Portuguese, these TortoiBilly choices never mesh. In fact, they feel as random as a lottery draw, leaving the performances cold, more world-weary than tired, and marked by an absence of discernible emotion. As yearning an album title as has ever been, The Brave and the Bold is an antithetical exercise that, like an aging grappler's headlock, is really no exercise at all.