Coming of age when the stench of teen spirit still hung thick in the air, multi-instrumental Chicago quintet Tortoise spent the 1990s pulling inspiration from Kraut-rock, tropicália, dub, jazz, and electronic records while their contemporaries aimed for an already passed alt-rock zeitgeist. Comprising three CDs’ and a DVD’s worth of outtakes, remixes, videos, and B sides (and the whole of 1995’s Rhythms, Resolutions, and Clusters), A Lazarus Taxon depicts the band’s most fertile period. As likely to strip Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater” for spare organ and drum parts as they were to allow Autechre to mechanize the laconic funk of their own “Ten-Day Interval,” Tortoise bravely bent once immutable genres. They weren’t the first to bridge such wide cross sections of sound (folks like Can, This Heat, or even the Mahavishnu Orchestra beat them to the punch), but when they breathed new life into Duke Ellington tunes or pastiched bass throbs, drum box riddims, and luminescent horn lopes into the Faustian “Cliff Dweller Society,” Tortoise showed that the pallid face of indie rock was ripe for a revision through an exploration of texture and timbre, rather than throughmere six-string-driven verses and choruses.
If Tortoise’s conceits don’t seem so revolutionary now that electronics are de rigueur and the once obscure bands from which they stole moves are a Google search away, that’s no fault of their own. Though they never set out to rewrite rock’s unspoken rules of riff centricism, they did allow for groove and rhythmic thrust to take the foreground. Post-rock today is a long-dead horse that simply means dropping the vocals and faking a guitar climax, but for a few moments a decade ago Tortoise showed just how wide-open that playing field could (and should) really be. Not a bad feat for a band whose only major contribution, as more than a few sniffled during their heyday, was ruining hardcore punk.
Tortoise play the Bowery Ballroom September 17.