Album: The Catastrophist
Label: Thrill Jockey
Release Date: 01/22/2016
Perhaps the most noticeable moment on Tortoise’s seventh studio album comes almost 10 minutes into its running time. On a cover of the 1973 David Essex hit “Rock On,” the typically instrumental-only band, deploys actual vocals from former U.S. Maple guitarist Todd Rittman.
The appearance of any vocals on a Tortoise song is a noteworthy event, and Rittman aids the group’s stuttering interpretation of Essex’s original with singing bathed in echo. But he’s not the only surprise guest. On the album’s second half, Yo La Tengo vocalist Georgia Hubley lets her trademark pipes wash over the track “Yonder Blue.” It’s a highlight moment, with subdued drums and gentle chimes evoking an air of ‘60s cinema cool. Listeners can almost see the black and white film such a tune would accompany, complete with a French chanteuse walking alone through a deserted city.
Unfortunately, the rest of the The Catastrophist fails to match such heights. The title track is a synth-driven number that flows languidly with short guitar ripples underscoring its loose-minded approach. But the sub-two-minute blast “Gopher Island,” built around a repetitive electronic loop, feels more like an intermission break listeners must sit through before moving on with the rest of the record.
Tortoise’s progressive rock and jazz leanings are executed amidst promising mixtures of sound. A bedrock rhythm section allows for synth and keyboard lines to wander before resolving back upon themselves. Yet, too often these forays take too long to develop, like on the almost eight-minute “Gesceap.”
Sure, with such skilled musicians at work some songs display engrossing interplay and rising structures searching for release. But the payoffs are few and far between.
– Michael Cimaomo