Tortoise’s fifth album, It’s All Around You from 2004, tells the listener from the outset that they are in for no surprises whatsoever. On previous albums; and especially with the proceeding Standards, Tortoise showed that they were a band who could take off into several directions. Unfortunately with It’s All Around You they made it absolutely clear that they chose the most tedious and uninspiring one.The album cover is a dead giveaway as well, recalling the awful Athena poster look of the artwork on albums by bands such as Weather Report. The music also resembles the smug Jazz Fusion of Weather Report. Cloying guitar melodies nuzzle up with an over-familiar use of the vibraphone in what is just more of the same; again and again.
This album was released in 2004, a year that many other underground ‘rock’ acts in the states were starting to get serious recognition for releasing truly fresh and startling albums. Outfits such as Black Dice, Animal Collective, No Neck Blues Band, Excepter, Gang Gang Dance, Double Leopards and Wolf Eyes showed that a radical spirit had not left American music (after all, they have a fine and rich history of it), and the work that these artists had released over the previous few years really puts an album like this to shame. Whether these bands jolted the listener with an overpowering menace (think Black Dice or Wolf Eyes), or with overpowering bliss (think Animal Collective), it didn’t really matter. What mattered was they showed this kind of tepid coffee table ‘post rock’ to be the tame cop out that it was.
It may seem unfair to compare Tortoise with other bands, who in all fairness, had a different agenda to them. However, it also seems impossible to not take into consideration what state the American underground was in at this time. It was in a very healthy state and Tortoise seemed to have no place within it any more. At best the tracks on this album are inoffensive wallpaper, which is never a glowing accolade for any musical outfit which regards itself as ‘avant’; at worst, they resemble the worst excesses of muso wankery that had far too much free rein during the 70s, a decade that luckily also showed us what could be achieved. To use the 70s as an analogy we could say that Tortoise are to the bands mentioned beforehand what Yes or ELP were to the avant rock that prevailed in Germany at the same time.
Tame, dull, with a resounding thumbs down. It’s All Around You is a thankfully forgettable experience.