A disclosure: In Tortoise’s heyday (a period spanning from 1994’s sleeper eponymous debut to 1998’s TNT, which was significantly more heralded upon its release), I was going through my glam-rock phase (Chainsaw Kittens and Bowie, not Poison). At that time, the idea of The Song as a five-minute-dub-Krautrock-electronica workout didn’t hold much appeal. (I was young.)
Granted, I should have worked my way back to Tortoise around the time I stopped secretly applying my roommate’s mascara before parties. But by then I didn’t hear a lot about Tortoise anymore, except as an influence on other groups — indeed, for a while, every other group — including Do Make Say Think, Radiohead, Godspeed You! Black Emperor, and Sigur Rós (many of which, I can now say, kind of ripped Tortoise off). What I missed, then, was the birth and rearing of the genre now widely known as post-rock, interpretations of which vary wildly from sort of space-age-lounge-music-sounding stuff (Stereolab) to ambitious Cure songs without vocals (Mogwai), but which generally emphasize the instruments over singing or lyrics (of which there’s frequently none) as well as repetition, dynamics, and the feel over hooks. Which makes post-rock sound like jazz, even though — and I state this emphatically — it’s not even close. The genre, which like many of its fundamentally indie kin-folk was slow to accept that it is one, has been influenced by jazz but, unlike jazz, is made by former marching band kids and calculus students who also happen to like jazz.
A Lazarus Taxon, a boxed set composed of three audio discs and a DVD, is packaged in a nice, square box with full-cover-sized monochrome tunnel photos by the obviously talented Arnold Odermatt, from Switzerland. It’s awesome in a kind of almost quaint 1997 kind of way (this being the “download era”). But the accompanying booklet is maddening: We get a with a well-written if fundamentally unhelpful essay by (post-)rock critic Alan Licht slapped wherever it would fit alongside totally different essays written in German, French, Japanese, and Spanish — gestures, presumably, to Tortoise’s sprawling fan base. If you’re looking in the book for a hint of what, exactly, this boxed set is, good luck. You can sort of piece it together reading the track-by-track synopses by a (naturally) uncredited band member in the back. But in order to do that, you must first overcome the natural response, which is to toss the booklet across the room for being so damn willfully oblique.
The music: The first and second discs cull odds and ends (compilation cuts, singles, and other stuff not contained on Tortoise’s proper albums), the third is a previously unreleased remix album of 1994 vintage (as so many remix albums are) served in full. The DVD compiles various live performances and TV appearances. It’s pretty and cool in a holy-shit-is-this-obscure kind of way, but we’re not talking about the most demonstrative performers in the world.
If I had a car at my disposal, I’d take the music out for a night on the road, because there’s no way they’d disappoint. Some of the songs are too self-consciously “smart” for their own good (two vibe players?) and grate, but for the most part the music is — wie sagt man? — transcendent. So many ideas are present, so many feels, and so many of them connect. Sitting down and letting the music wash over can be, on the right kind of night, overwhelming. The rhythm section — Doug McCombs (bass) and John Herndon (drums, “vibes,” et cetera) — is rooted in the robotic glide of the Neu!-originated motorik, which was literally intended to mimic the sound and, yes, feel of driving. Producer/mixer/nominal second drummer John McEntire has a way of lifting the beats out of time and place and depositing them on a higher plane that goes straight to the part of your brain that connects sounds with emotion. So when Tortoise isn’t mucking around too much with, for lack of a better term, jazz — as the addition, in 1997, of actual jazz guitarist Jeff Parker and, indeed, the chronological flow of the first two discs leads us to believe they are, increasingly — the music is hypnotizing and almost disarmingly emotional. Which is weird given that based on the packaging and calculus rhythms, you’d think the band members — also including the heretofore unmentioned Don Bitney (percussion) — are pretty fucking stoic.
Apparently, the title roughly means “a grouping of organisms that vanishes for a while (as in possibly millions of years) in fossil records only to reappear later.” The “taxon,” then, like the biblical Lazarus, rises from the dead. I’m going to assume that in addition to the obvious meaning (old stuff given new life via this boxed set), the title has multiple ambiguous but pertinent meanings. What it could mean, though, is that in the inevitable dystopian world forty or fifty years in the future, long after the equally inevitable post-rock revival (look out Chicago!), someone will unearth this totally baffling boxed set and be moved to start a band. Because Tortoise really is that good.