A Lazarus Taxon
usic, like fashion, runs in cycles. Today’s Justin Timberlake “jam” will someday sound as dated as Pat Boone, just as surely as those retro afros you’re sporting will someday embarrass you down the road. Styles change, and while some things remain classics, they usually don’t appear that way until some significant period of time after their initial death. After all, the first pinstripe suit or A-line skirt wasn’t declared a classic the first time it appeared in a shop window, and neither were the Beatles or Bob Dylan. These things take time and perspective to settle to their proper rung on history’s ladder.
For an all-too-brief period in the mid-1990s, post-rock was the musical trend of the moment to a select group of hipsters and critics, coming out of nowhere and energizing the tired indie rock scene. With traditional rock instrumentation underpinning jazz-style arrangements, experimental production techniques, analog synthesizers, the occasionally danceable rhythm, and a host of influences ranging from Miles Davis to Morton Subotnick, from Slint to Ry Cooder, Joy Division to Can, post-rock had the inherent appeal of underground chic, musical chops, and a punk-influenced DIY sensibility. It’s no wonder that every music snob worth his salt glommed onto the movement.
Tortoise was the undisputed figurehead. Formed in Chicago (post-rock’s Mecca and Ground Zero) and featuring veterans of a handful of pedigreed indie outfits (Bastro, Eleventh Dream Day, Gastr Del Sol, Poster Children, and others), the five-piece (at the beginning anyway) mashed up dub, jazz, and rock like no one had before or arguably since. The band members broke the preconceived notions of what an indie-rock outfit should sound like or act like: they flirted with dance music, Stereolab, Steve Reich, and musique concrete, often times all on one side. They released limited pressing 7-inches that were the status symbol of the moment, seen under every tastemaker’s arm. They remixed their own material into remarkable new shapes and when they were done, they handed it off to other up-and-coming acts to mess them around a bit more. Onstage they improvised and switched instruments and had three guys playing marimbas and glockenspiels and xylophones and the Putney. No one had seen their like before, and their influence was pervasive. They deserved the hype and they lived up to it and often exceeded it.
As with any such band, other bands formed in their wake; some were offshoots of the restless band members themselves, others were acquaintances, and still others were simply copycats. Some were great and some sucked. And as with any underground movement popularized by fickle hipsters, the post-rock movement soon met with a backlash, shunned by the very cognoscenti who feted them moments before. The cycle continues.
In an effort to throw out yesterday’s fashions, however, the hipsters seemingly forgot that there was still some damn fine, forward-thinking music being left on the curb with their old futons. Tortoise didn’t do themselves any favors by taking so long between albums, nor by slowing down the experimental bent that always made them such a kick to follow. To their credit, however, they never tried to be something that they weren’t always trying to be—that is, the sort of band that made the sort of music that the band members themselves wanted to hear. They’re still out there, still recording, and I know I will be out there waiting for their next project to drop just as I have been for all the rest of them. They are, to some of us anyway, a Brooks Brothers three-button charcoal grey suit, and they always will be.
A Lazarus Taxon collects, over the course of three CDs and a DVD (reasonably priced, by the way, in a sporty box and featuring essays by several authors in several languages), the band’s non-LP output, or as I put it, “the good stuff.” Tortoise always were at their best when they were fucking shit up. It was what made them special. And so here, you’ll find the band’s remix of Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater,” a collaboration with Five Deez, two Autechre remixes, a Joy Division cover (well, sort of), and much more. There’s both sides of the rare-as-hen’s-teeth Duophonic single featuring the pulsating rhythm of “Gamera” with the band in full flight; elsewhere, we get “Goriri,” a radically remixed and dubbed out remix of the track that almost grinds to a halt entirely about two minutes in. They turned their music over and looked up its own backside not out of pretentiousness or self-importance, but because they thought it might sound cool. You can’t argue with that.
The DVD features the band’s video output, ranging from the intriguing to the kitschy to the downright boring, but the real highlights come from the live footage, taken from various phases and stages of the band’s career. As with everything else, Tortoise stubbornly refuse to be pigeonholed, sounding equally great augmented by horns at the straight-laced Deutches Jazz Festival as they do in the grainy black and white set recorded in 1996 in Toronto. For good measure, there’s a clip from 2005 of the band playing “Seneca” (a Tortoise classic of sorts) from behind the scenes while a quartet of dudes in gorilla masks mime the music and a melting pot of Chicagoans get down on the set. Accuse Tortoise of many things, but don’t ever accuse them of not having a sense of humor. That’s something their “fans” might be guilty of, but not the band members themselves.
Longtime collectors might have a lot of this stuff, especially disc three, which presents the original Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters LP, itself a remixed version of the band’s self-titled debut, including the long lost Mike Watt remix of “Cornpone Brunch,” victim of a damaged DAT at the time, now lovingly reconstructed (fitting, no?) by Bundy K. Brown and released here for the first time. But while these side trips and scenic excursions might sound like oddities heard on their own, taken as a whole, they paint a stunning portrait of a band perpetually in transition.
Others might tell you that 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die is the definitive Tortoise recording, but I’ll stand by A Lazarus Taxon as an introduction, as the set perfectly illustrates exactly what was and is so magic about the band, that structureless structure that fascinates and reinvents itself every time you play it. Time will tell how history will look back on Tortoise and the whole post-rock sound—it certainly isn’t in vogue at the moment, but that might all change, as it often does. Hopefully A Lazarus Taxon will go a long way toward resurrecting the band’s unjustifiably sullied reputation and promote Tortoise to the lofty place they deserve as groundbreakers, pioneers, astronauts. Let the post-rock revival start here.