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Tortoise re-release series, part 3 – TNT

Thrill Jockey

When TNT came out, some of the band members mentioned whilst interviewed that using Pro Tools had given them too many options, and that they had feared at one point that the album would lack direction. Lacking direction would be a harsh criticism for TNT, however it could definitely be said that it’s a sprawling album, and can become aimless and like something akin to sonic wallpaper from time to time.

By now listeners knew what to expect from Tortoise, and indeed the opening track “TNT” delivered their trademark sound. Relatively upbeat, pretty serious and muso, it opens with jazzy drum frills which give way to a guitar riff straight from the band’s workbook. Dubby effects and muted horn riffs come into play in what is essentially a pared-down Jazz Fusion for the 90s. The second track, Swing From The Gutters,” is one of the real highlights of the album. Atmospheric and cinematic are two adjectives that spring to mind when listening to this piece. A subtle Latin influence permeates the drums and percussion, which carry you along while a repetitive melancholic guitar refrain plays out gently.

“Ten Day Interval” and “I Set My Face To The Hillside” are both engaging enough; with the former retreading ground the band covered on “Djed” from previous album [post=tortoise-millions text=”Millions Now Living Will Never Die”]; xylophones playing systemic music a la Steve Reich; while the latter throws some flamenco influences into the mix and pays homage to Augustus Pablo and Ennio Morricone (himself a huge influence on Pablo). The use of a melodica makes the Pablo influence explicit. After this the album starts to lose its way somewhat, with several tracks sounding like a glorified Muzak™ for the post-rave generation. There is even a point where one of the works starts to remind you of The Shadows. Post-rock Hank Marvin anyone?

Things thankfully pick up again with one of the album’s real standout tracks, “In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men,” which is named after, but isn’t a cover of, a 1972 piece by Robert Ashley. The composition hooks you from the onset with the irresistible guitar riff. The Latin influence cited earlier is more overt; like Ry Cooder playing flamenco. An undercurrent of Warp Records-style electronica makes its way into the track, replete with old school Detroit Techno handclaps. In fact, the track has the same emotional pull that many of the classic Detroit numbers have to them; a tugging of the heartstrings that Derrick May and Juan Atkins could so readily achieve.

After this the album falls back into the inoffensive yet forgettable territory that blights the album’s mid section. The following two tracks are subdued Electronica with a Drum’n’Bass influence that has no real depth or menace; again, restraint and polite are two terms that can be applied; and applied derisively it has to be said. The album closer “Evergladeleaves little impression on the listener, and ensures that TNT just discreetly slopes away without much fanfare.

When looking back over the past hour and a bit one can’t help but think that TNT could have been shorter and punchier. However that would have also depended on what tracks stayed, and which ones were omitted. It was an album heralded as a masterpiece by some but in reality was a dip in form, and an indication that the band were possibly losing their potency.

-Jay Harper-

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