Tortoise — A Lazarus Taxon

A Lazarus Taxon artwork It shouldn’t really be the case that an album of old tracks that never made it onto proper albums is one of the most hotly anticipated albums of the year. But it is very difficult not to get excited about Tortoise’s music, particularly when most of it comes from the band’s most fertile period.

A Lazarus Taxon is a mammoth compendium of rarities from one of the most revered bands of the past fifteen years. Three CDs are filled to the brim, and a bonus DVD is thrown in for good measure. And it costs little more than a normal album. This is craziness!

The first thing you notice about A Lazarus Taxon, though, is the bleakness of the packaging: black and white photographs of car crashes taken by Arnold Odermatt. The photographs are brilliant, but apart from that I have to wonder why Tortoise decided to use these as the artwork for a box set that almost sums up their career.

In their review of this album, Pitchfork described the album as having “tombstone vibe”:

…in many ways they remain emblematically tied to the mid- to late-1990s, a time when indie rock remixes were a real mind blower and everyone was scrimping for their own marimba.

It is unfortunately true that Tortoise’s heyday has probably been and gone. Although my personal favourite Tortoise album is the relatively recent Standards from 2001, there are few people who would say that their last proper album, It’s All Around You, is their best. And if the startlingly bland album of cover versions made with Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, The Brave and The Bold, is a sign of things to come, it is difficult to get excited about new Tortoise material. Not as excited as you would get about old Tortoise material anyway.

So along comes A Lazarus Taxon to remind us what all the fuss was about. And make no mistake — that fuss was justified. Hearing Tortoise’s music was one of the major reasons why I started getting interested in more experimental music about five years ago.

‘Experimental’ is a term that is used far too liberally when no actual experimentation takes place, but Tortoise surely deserve the tag. They are often credited with inventing a genre — post-rock, a kind of krautrock updated for the 1990s where indie-rock, electronic music, Steve Reich-style minimalism and jazz all met with ease. This is a band that was so unconventional that the first appearance of a (not bass) guitar was a big step — pretty weird for a rock band. Tortoise turned the vibraphone into a rock and roll instrument, man!

At their peak, Tortoise were able to defy your expectations, turning their music inside-out at ease, making the listener rip up his expectations over and over again — and not just for the sake of it. Tortoise were one of the few bands that were able to push the boundaries and experiment without coming close to disappearing up their back chute.

Can you imagine any other bands being able to create an epic like ‘Djed’? Lasting twenty-one minutes, the track begins as a quaint melody played on the bass guitar which becomes a driving mid-tempo foot-tapping quasi-jam. The party is interrputed by the most evil-sounding keyboard you’ll ever hear, which in turn becomes a mind-bending Steve Reich-influenced marimba / vibraphone showdown. The hypnotic percussion is interrupted by a ‘tape accident’ which eventually leads to the relaxed, ambienty conclusion. Despite the vast range of styles and moods explored in the track, it is cohesive — every single move makes sense. I really struggle to think of any other bands that could even dream of creating something like this.

Despite the high bar that Tortoise have set on their most well-known material, A Lazarus Taxon does not sound like just a bunch of sub-standard B-sides and obscurities thrown together. Almost everything on this album is every bit as strong as Tortoise’s regular album tracks. It is a real testament to the quality of the band that even Tortoise offal is so good.

Perhaps the only real disappointment about this album is that despite the length — almost three hours — a quick glance at Tortoise’s discography confirms that this comes nowhere close to tying up all those loose ends. Perhaps this is a simple case of choosing quality over quantity, but the quality of this album has only made me more eager to finally learn how to use Soulseek so that I can track down those obscure, forgotten remixes.

So what about that quality? The first two discs of the set are made up of remixes, Japanese bonus tracks and miscellaneous other tracks from out-of-print EPs. The album kicks off with ‘Gamera’, which appears to be one of Tortoise’s most famous tracks despite the fact that it is considered a ‘rarity’. The track is immediately familiar, as it is a reworking of ‘His Second Story Island’ from Tortoise’s eponymous debut album.

Other highlights include ‘Restless Waters’ (a chilled out reworking of ‘Dear Grandma and Grandpa’), ‘Blue Station’ (the beautiful Japanese bonus track for the Standards album) and the amusing ‘Waihopai’ (from the ‘Gently Cupping the Chin of the Ape’ tour EP). Autechre’s two remixes of ‘Ten Day Interval’ are also real standouts. You couldn’t dream of having two better acts working together, and both of them near the top of their game aswell.

For me, the album’s low point comes in the form of ‘Elmerson, Lincoln and Palmeri’ and ‘Deltitnu’, the inconsequential Japanese bonus tracks for It’s All Around You. Nobukazu Takemura’s ten minute-long remix of ‘TNT’ could have done with being half its length aswell.

The third disc is basically a reissue of Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters, an album of remixes from Tortoise’s debut album — but with the inclusion of ‘Cornpone Brunch Watt Remix’ which had to be left off the original after the DAT master was damaged in the post.

Rhythms, Resolutions & Clusters is perhaps the most sought-after part of A Lazarus Taxon, although it is a bit of a disappointment to me. Maybe ten years ago it was revolutionary, but today it just sounds a bit rambling. There are some pleasent moments (some nice fuzzy ambient efforts) and it was worth the effort to include ‘Cornpone Brunch Watt Remix’, but for the most part RR&C doesn’t do much for me.

The DVD, where there was so much potential, is also a bit of a let down. The videos, apart from ‘Seneca’ and ‘Salt the Skies’, are poor and have dated badly.

Much of the live material is also of low quality. The band is absolutely fine, but the majority of the live footage — taken from a 1996 concert in Toronto — looks like it has been filmed on whatever was one step above a camcorder ten years ago. It certainly looks as though it’s been shot by amateurs, and the sound is badly out of synch with the pictures — very off-putting, especially when you’re watching the percussionists. It is like watching something on YouTube, not a DVD. I guess if that’s all there is then it’s obviously better than nothing, but it’s still a bit of a let down.

I was also looking forward to seeing ‘Seneca’ live, but that turned out to be Tortoise miming (pretending to play toy instruments) to an audience of bemused children on a television programme called Chic-A-Go-Go.

A better haul of videos can be found on YouTube, and I’ve collected some of them below the fold

Despite the slightly more disappointing aspects, though, A Lazarus Taxon is a very special collection of tracks. Apart from including more tracks, it is difficult to imagine how this album could be better. A lot of gems have been plucked from obscurity, which is something to be grateful for. If you’re even slightly interested in Tortoise, you really should buy it. Three CDs and a DVD of excellent material, and it costs little more than a normal album.

Tortoise YouTube extravaganza

  • ‘Seneca’:
  • ‘Monica’:
  • ‘The Taut and Tame’:
  • Live at Werchter (30 mins long!):

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