It’s been a while since a true vinyl record review has appeared on this blog, and what better time to start an ongoing series on Independent Ethos than … whenever (or when you, dear reader, might just be sick of all the year-end lists?). I own many albums collected over my 20 years of writing about music that I believe still hold up to this day (and there have been many purges over the years). Since I began writing about music in the early nineties as a freelance music journalist, many albums came out that I regret never having had the opportunity to review. Some I discovered much later, others I just never wrote about but still continue to give me listening pleasure, never going out of style in their timeless quality. These are records I would consider both touchstones of a certain era but that also exist beyond their time and should be considered classics.
One musical movement born in the early nineties that still continues to this day is post-rock (see my review for Mogwai’s last album). Fusing elements as diverse as jazz, electronic, rock and even hardcore, this mostly instrumental form of music was one of the few true original movements that defied simple pigeonholing during that decade. When music critics began banding about the term— short for postmodern rock— it even ruffled the feathers of some of the low-key pioneers of the genre. They preferred anonymity to stage presence. They started no fashion trends (flannel? Screw that, T-shirts and cargo shorts do fine). They had minimal lighting on stage and never encouraged audience participation. In fact, their music was anti-audience-friendly. The bands often took odd left turns in their music, exploring intense dynamics that sometimes forced the listener to reach for the volume knob, to either raise it for a closer listen to the more hushed passages or lower it during the more intense moments that could pounce with little warning.
One album in particular marked the height of the post-rock scene: Tortoise’s 1996 album Millions Now Living Will Never Die released by Chicago’s Thrill Jockey Records (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl on Amazon.com). I stumbled across a vinyl copy at my local indie record haunt, Sweat Records, at a great price. $25? Better than I thought I would ever make out paying for this record now long out of print. It was only the Chicago-based outfit’s second full-length release, but it has come to epitomize the post-rock sound. When I first bought the CD version of this album soon after its release, it was while following the influences of Stereolab, whose key members (Tim Gane, Laetitia Sadier and Mary Hansen) were featured on the acknowledgements page but otherwise had little presence on the album:
Stereolab had appeared on the scene during the revival of fifties and sixties Bachelor Pad style, or “lounge,” music, which is probably best recognized today in the style and ambiance of the “Mad Men” television series. The London-based band released an EP in 1993 entitled The Groop Played “Space Age Batchelor Pad Music” on their own UK-based label Duophonic Records (Support the Independent Ethos, buy the vinyl reissue on Amazon.com). Despite jazz influences like Martin Denny, Stereolab also heavily incorporated noisy elements of Krautrock. The record is probably best compared to the droning sounds of bands like Faust and Neu!, despite the title’s sly reference to the music of Denny and Juan Garcia Esquivel*. The electronic burbles of the Moog synthesizer and the presence of analog keyboards like the Farfisa also figure heavily on the EP. That same year, Tortoise released its debut EP “Mosquito” on Torsion Music (see the Tortoise discography). However, to my delight, Tortoise were indeed another animal from Stereolab. There was a mutual DNA in the abstract, noisy influences of the guitar-based bands of Krautrock. Often regarded as the band’s figurehead, Tortoise drummer and producer John McEntire would later produce several of Stereolab’s future works.
Though McEntire, a classically trained percussionist, often received credit as the band’s leader (maybe because the credits on Millions begins with his name as producer), the band began with bassist Douglas McCombs, who played in Eleventh Dream Day before Tortoise, and multi-instrumentalist/drummer John Herndon, formerly of the Poster Children. I was a fan of those two bands at the time, as well, but their albums of that era sound dated in comparison to the otherworldly groove and din of Millions Now Living Will Never Die. The collaboration of McCombs and Herndon started the seeds that would form Tortoise, which began as a studio experiment. McEntire came in soon after, along with guitarist Bundy K. Brown after meeting while working with David Grubbs in Bastro (Grubbs and McEntire would continue working together in Gastr del Sol, when that band’s songwriting took a more atmospheric and experimental turn, creating amazing music of the era in its own right). But Brown departed after Tortoise’s self-titled debut album. Slint bassist and acclaimed multi-instrumentalist in his own right David Pajo stepped in to replace Brown. Finally, forming the core group that recorded this album, is percussionist Dan Bitney who found himself in the band in its early beginnings after the hardcore band Tar Babies broke up (see Tortoise’s bio on the All Music Guide).
I have recently been playing Millions Now Living Will Never Die on my turntable, a luxury that was not available to me in my college years, and this vinyl sample I found at Sweat has proved an amazing revelation. Despite having some worn corners to the jacket, the vinyl inside sounds near pristine. It came complete with the insert featuring the track-listing and acknowledgements shown above. Most importantly, however, it offers a super clean sound. Besides, finding this years-old release with worn corners is inevitable, as the jacket is made from a very soft cardboard material, unique to the release, a material I have otherwise not seen used on LP jackets. If you have the CD, it’s the same soft, flimsy stuff.
Speaking of the cover art, the swirling silver fish on a duo-toned blue background offers an appropriate visual representation of the majestic soundscapes inside. The album evokes not only wide spaces but depths that capture some of the more sublime aspects of the Tortoise sound. Like the band’s self-titled debut, which had some mumbled words on one track, this album only has one track with barely discernible human voices. It’s all about abstraction. The only thing evocative of intelligible language are the track titles**.
The album opens with the daring, 21-minute “Djed” (pronounce “Jed,” as some of the band members once told me), a track that seems to come up and out of the profundity of the ocean. A dark throbbing bass, accompanied by the churning, almost muffled explosive sounds of a super-reverbed stick beat kicks off the piece. A subtle vibraphone accompanies the bass-driven melody. The wash of effects and reverb that affect the music makes it feel as though the music exists in a weightless space, like the currents that travel through, over and under one another throughout the expanse of the ocean. About two minutes in, electronics whistle and crunch, as organs swell from the depths of the din to overtake the piece, and a decidedly brighter and warmer feel takes over. It’s almost a comforting relief from the dense beginning of the track.
As luscious organ hums fill the track, about three minutes in, a true drum kit appears to propel the piece along, as the bass, more felt than heard, is joined by the low melody of a guitar that seems to offer a syncopated contrast to the drum bashing. The bass throbs below the mix of organs, on a mechanical drumbeat that owes its debt to Krautrock stalwarts Neu! Layers of different melodies wander into slight solos, but always return to a uniform groove, as the track continues. For Tortoise, even melodious instruments can take on the rhythmic properties of drums. Meanwhile, beats can morph into melodies. It can sound busy, but the repetitious drones of the passages will catch the close listener by surprise. The music constantly intrigues, always offering layer upon layer of abstract musicality, as the instrumental trots along offering various transformations in tone.
As instruments fall away at about the 10-minute mark, a hyper metallic pulse that seems spawned on a digital device fades in. There’s a buzz and the first beat seems to go dead, and a second beat phases the track into a slower pace. Marimba rumble in the almost inaudible distance (thank you vinyl and Bose headphones for the tiny detail that I otherwise never noticed). An analog organ offers a luscious, slow, churning melody, as a muffled, watery, reverb-effected guitar offers a rhythmic hook. More melodies are spread over the rhythmic melody as rapid marimba, vibes and bells are offered one layer after another. Again, the band explores tonal shifts in rhythms. A fit here, a squeeze there, a return to rhythm, until, at just before the 14-minute mark, during what sounds like the split-second collapse of a chord, something unsettling and completely out of the realm of instruments happens. It almost sounds like the skipping sounds of a CD (a technique later highly influential in the world of “glitch” music). The sudden, jarring deconstruction of the music pushes out all the melody to only leave struggling pulses and throbs that quiver and rumble, shaking off layers of luscious muck.
The rumbles and squishy electronics continue and fade in and out as an ominous hum ebbs and retreats in what seems a calm undercurrent. Electronics zip and oscillate over the din, as the marimba return, fading in at around the 17-minute mark. They seem to hammer away at the din in a glorious calm of melody that brings to mind the great use of marimba by Stewart Copeland on the Rumble Fish soundtrack.*** The marimba fades away as a high-pitched, flat, slurred honking organ fades up, echoing the marimba melody. Meanwhile, the squishy electronic-affected rhythm swells then disappears to make way for another tonal shift, about a minute and a half later. The section comes to a rattling end. It makes way for a dragging, patient rhythm, and up from the ether bubbles up a melody the hums and buzzes like cables in the wind, offering the piece’s memorable refrain. This section of the “Djed” refrain is extraordinarily spaced out and almost unrecognizable. It sounds like pulses and throbs for the most part, but there is much hidden melody, as if it’s occurring in the waves on some distant horizon. There are calls and responses among these electrified melodies, sparking and echoing off one another as if they are distant, slow-moving lightning strikes, like “St. Elmo’s fire spitting ions in the ether.” And so ends Side 1, offering an incredible journey into the expansive possibilities of instrumentation few musicians dare explore with so much rhythm and melody but also frayed noise and chaos.
Here’s some bonus, watch the band re-create the piece in a video recorded on July 8, 2009, at KCRW’s studios for its ”Morning Becomes Eclectic” show:
The second side of Millions Now Living Will Never Die almost feels anticlimactic in comparison to “Djed.” However, even though these five shorter instrumental pieces that use similar instrumentation may feel tempered by comparison, they should not to be underestimated. The vinyl brings out the acoustic instrumentation of the first track on Side 2, “Glass Museum,” much better than I have ever heard on CD. That also means one can hear the electronic guitars crunching much crisper than on the CD. The piece begins slow and meandering, growing hushed to allow the distant swell and ebb of what sounds like a synthesizer, or maybe some warped string instrument, to howl high-pitched chords underneath the languorous guitars, sluggish drums and luscious vibes, which offer a celestial, skipping melody. Despite all that activity, what gives the piece its shiny glaze is that hum of the subtle high-pitched howl of a chord, which may not even be a synth or a string instrument but the slow exhale and inhale of a melodica, an instrument I have seen the band incorporate live. The wonderful mysterious quality of that decorative sound from an almost subliminal instrument is key to this track.
At around the two-minute mark the vibes and percussion pause for some other distant creature to hum and hoot from what sounds like a distance, while the guitar is calming strummed. Before you are given a chance to figure out what that is, the song returns with the drifting marimba and guitar. Like “Djed,” this track also has the feel of the ocean, and stirs up into a storm of noise about halfway through as congas and marimba pile up and drive the piece on a frenetic impressive shift in tone as an electric guitar crunches along. But this explosion of frenzy soon comes to a grinding halt, with on last, exhausting crunch of the electric guitar. The shift is handled gorgeously as the section melts back into the calm it opened with: a sparkling marimba melody with the contrast of a buzzing synth for a few more refrains, until the piece comes to a reverberating stop.
You can hear the track for yourself (for the time being) with this YouTube clip, still you may be hard pressed to truly hear the subtle luscious quality of the array of instrumentation that come out so clear and colorful on the vinyl:
The next track, “a Survey,” feels more atmospheric. The piece is coated by the sound of crickets, as a rhythmically strummed bass offers the bottom to the quiet interplay of a sporadically licked guitar. The two stringed instruments play a sort of call and response between two channels. The strings seem to also release a metallic hum that drones along underneath the track. It carries on for less than three minutes until it simply fades away.
The third track on side 2, “the Taut and the Tame,” features a whipping beat with a sharp edge and also features the low-end, characteristic guitar work and accompanying marimba that seem to exemplify this album’s signature sound. The drums are inhumanly kinetic and sometimes seem to fray with electronic effects but never give way to full electronics, like so much of the music did back in the day of the album’s release, as house and breakbeat rave music seemed to have been petering out around that time.
The fourth track, “Dear Grandma and Grandpa,” finally seems to feature a voice, but it’s a young girl’s voice, seemingly coming from a distant dimension and another time, from somewhere unknown, as electronics lethargically pulse, hum and waver through the speakers. A man’s voice responds in an almost sing-song quality. All the while, electronics continue to pulse along and shimmer with shifting variety. It remains rhythmic yet chaotic but so hushed and relaxed that it never grows annoying. The distorted trill of a flute can be heard in the background, from what might be an old television set. It fades away and the bass offers one final, dreary melody with languorous drum and cymbal accompaniment. Here begins “Along the Banks of Rivers.” The track’s cool quality is brilliantly set up by the hushed cacophony of “Dear Grandma and Grandpa.” This track almost recalls the music of Ennio Morricone. Beyond the atmospheric hum of some organs, this is the most traditional of all the instrumentals on Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and makes a perfect album closer. If a sunset over the ocean needed a soundtrack, this piece would offer the best accompaniment.
Millions stands the test as not only a fine example of post rock but the art album that spawns vivid imagery and creates luscious atmosphere. The musicians gel amazingly together, and a testament to that is the fact the band still exists, despite line up shifts, to release an album here and there, though all the members have other groups to occupy their time. Tortoise has since evolved to create albums that swing more concretely while also relying on electronics more than ever. But this album remains a true favorite. The analog quality of the instrumentation is downright primitive compared with today’s standards, but the fact the album sounds so vital will always stand as a tribute to the creative minds behind the instrumentation.
Up-date: Thrill Jockey reissued Milions Now Living Will Never Die on vinyl earlier this year, as part of its 20th anniversary, but it has already gone out of print. Other Tortoise albums remain in-print, however, including its masterful follow-up TNT as well as several long-out-of-print 90s-era Sea and Cake albums, McEntire’s other band. For those in Miami, Sweat Records received a shipment of these reissues and more just in time for this post (like them on Facebook).
If you live in Tortoise’s hometown of Chicago, Tortoise, the Sea and Cake as well as Man Forever will perform a free show on Dec. 20 (details here).
*I had a chance to interview Esquivel for a lengthy profile piece in the record collector’s magazine, “Goldmine.” He had heard Stereolab’s EP but was quite perplexed with comparisons, as Stereolab were probably most influenced by the sounds of Krautrock, at least during that more noisy, droney period of their sound, which has since evolved to a more effervescent, poppy sound.
**I once interviewed Tortoise guitarist Jeff Parker (he came in during the recording of the band’s third album, TNT) and Herndon. They explained they pull their track titles from whatever they might be reading. When they see phrases that interest them, they note them as possible titles.
***During my interview with them, Parker and Herndon both said they were fans of the Rumble Fish soundtrack. That interview might appear on this blog at some point. If it does, I will update this post with a link.