09/18/12

Thrill Jockey’s 20th Anniversary Featuring Tortoise

Post-rockers celebrate label in Baltimore

Over the past two decades, the Chicago-based indie label Thrill Jockey has built a reputation for releasing music that is esoteric yet substantial. Sift through its catalog and you’ll find no real through-lines except quality and a certain curatorial hipness. The label’s lengthy roster includes everything from Liturgy’s black metal through the stagy synthpop of Future Islands, the Appalachian reels of the Black Twig Pickers, and plenty from the Windy City jazz avant-garde: Fred Anderson, Hamid Drake, Bill Dixon, Rob Mazurek and Nicole Mitchell all have Thrill Jockey projects in their discographies.

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Evan Haga

Tortoise performs in Baltimore to celebrate Thrill Jockey’s 20th anniversary; September 2012. (L-R: Doug McCombs, John McEntire, Dan Bitney, Jeff Parker. Not pictured: John Herndon.)

The label is celebrating its 20th anniversary with a series of showcase-style concerts, including one held on Thursday night (Sept. 13) in Baltimore, a rustbelt city whose earnest DIY scene has been good to Thrill Jockey—and vice versa. The show took place at Rams Head Live!, a well-appointed rock club in a touristy section of town, and the cavernous room served its purpose even if it dwarfed a solid turnout. Thrill Jockey’s avant-jazz history per se didn’t figure into this show, but the label’s relationship with jazz-leaning instrumental music certainly did. That included the Baltimore-based electronic duo Matmos (here extended to a quartet), whose Eastern opener treaded on Impulse! territory, and Tortoise, label veterans and progenitors of the wordless genre called “post-rock.”

Post-rock is the sort of indie-rock genre that signified stylistic freedom early on but has developed into something standardized. Jazz fans especially might find much of this music overly brooding, with too many melodramatic crescendos. But Tortoise’s music was and is a truly eclectic proposition, yet a smartly stylized and focused one.

For the better part of an hour, the five players—Dan Bitney, Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker, John Herndon and John McEntire—played thoroughly and intricately composed instrumental music underscored by the band’s clever, understated showmanship. A couple of things give Tortoise visual appeal that may or may not be intended: the simultaneous use of two drummers (setting up two opposing kits is not uncommon in indie-rock now, and Tortoise surely had something to do with the trend), and extensive multi-instrumentalism, which found members switching instruments frequently, often during mid-song. The texturally rich tools Tortoise uses are in large part the band’s hook: electric guitar soaked in noir-ish tremolo, marimbas, drums accented with dubby ricochet, synth timbres that are both retro-space-age and timeless. Composition is what keeps this band from falling more toward jazz: If you expected to hear Parker, a terrific improviser on guitar and Tortoise’s strongest argument for jazz credibility, cut loose, you’d have been disappointed.

Up front and center were the genre touchstones that seem compulsory when writing about this group: minimalism, electronica, Krautrock, Morricone, the most self-aware strains of jazz-rock fusion—all cloaked in the band’s signature steely gaze. (There was also a bit of funny banter on this night, as Bitney impersonated Beach Boy Mike Love a couple of times, for no coherent reason.)

Tortoise doesn’t rely on vamps or funk, but it’s also very accessible. The crowd danced to “Monica,” with its hooky tune and groove fit for an Italian disco. “Crest,” on which a gorgeous figure floated over a steady pulse of keyboard chords, offered the sort of melodic beauty that stays with you. “Seneca,” with its steamrolling drumming, was a moment of rock heroism. “High Class Slim Came Floatin’ In” flaunted big riffs, first in unison and then harmonized, over a beat that might catch a hip-hop producer’s ear. The crowd smiled wide even if the band didn’t.

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