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Whipping Post 

Wednesday, Apr 8 1998
(Thrill Jockey)

Trans Am
The Surveillance
(Thrill Jockey)

Gastr del Sol
(Drag City)

Sonic Youth/Jim O'Rourke
Invito Al Cielo EP

Pere Ubu

Shortly after the release of Tortoise's self-titled debut, bassist/guitarist Bundy K. Brown left the band. His rationale, as the Chicago Scenester Rumor Mill had it, was that Brown feared the band he helped found would become too popular. In those innocent days of 1994, that was pretty funny. Tortoise indeed had a growing cult within Chicago, aficionados of the loopy, dub-happy, wandering instrumentals they had whipped up, created by a conclave of musicians from (at that time) better-known acts (Slint, Eleventh Dream Day, Poster Children). 1994's Tortoise was mood music; well-crafted and occasionally revelatory, but still mood music. At its heart, it was the sound of a bunch of rock musicians with big record collections fucking around and, according to them, having a good laugh about it.

Fast-forward four years. A remix of Tortoise's "Tin Cans and Twine" is now featured in an ad for a Calvin Klein fragrance, the band's total record sales is approaching six figures, and "fucking around" has mutated into what British critic Simon Reynolds christened "post-rock," a signifier as nebulous as "pornography"; you don't know what it is, but you know it when you hear it. Writing in the Village Voice, Reynolds' "post" prefix implied that these artists were making music more advanced or better than rock. Supposedly, it was the sound of the next wave of rock music, an expansion of the strictures of conventional verse-chorus-verse pop, employing more instruments and improvisational concepts to open up the range of notes and tonalities. Now clearly Tortoise's fourth album, TNT, is chock-full of notes and tonalities: hundreds, thousands of them, coming out of the six-piece's guitars, basses, marimbas, vibraphones, and keyboards. With the addition of guitarist Jeff Parker, alumnus of the New Horizons Ensemble and Chicago Underground Orchestra, they now have a measure of the free-jazz credibility that crits and boosters always copped to. As a result, TNT is diverse and dynamic; "post," even. Why, then, is it so damn boring?

As befits most bands that make music for the sheer fun of making music, the majority of the songs on TNT fall victim to navel-gazing self-indulgence. The compositions establish a polite, restful mood -- the wash of vibes on "Ten-Day Interval," the lilting, mournful Spanish guitar of "I Set My Face to the Hillside," the surf guitar and ethereal keyboards of "The Suspension Bridge at Iguazœ Falls" -- but not much more. Even concentrating on the details, the songs become no more inviting or revelatory, and no less inscrutable. TNT's strongest suit is the dense layering of sounds; producer John McEntire saves the record with his thoughtful sonic technique, exposing the richness of each particular instrument. And it's his percussion and heavily syncopated drum work toward the end of the album that breathes some real life into the proceedings. On "Almost Always Is Nearly Enough" and "Jetty," the layered strategy starts paying off, combining staccato electronic percussion, sampled gasps and groans, and an array of nervous rhythms into a sort of brave new world of technofunk, Kraftwerk with a soul, while "Everglade" has the limber, bass-heavy feel that made Tortoise worthwhile. It's a lovely way to close a record that, unfortunately, just massages the same pleasant mood in different ways. Mantovani records might not be as hip -- as "post" -- but the sonic territory they explore is similar.

Not that post-rock necessarily has to focus on mere experimental mood elevation. Trans Am, an Ohio trio who have worked under McEntire's tutelage for their first two records, have all the "post" parts in place -- inspiration from soundtracks, German prog-rock, electronic music experimentalists -- but the ideas are couched in traditional guitar-bass-drums. Like post-rock heroes Can and Karlheinz Stockhausen, Trans Am's third album, The Surveillance, is big on theory: It's an instrumental record with song titles -- "Access Control," "Home Security" -- that try to hint at a world where Forces Are Aligning Against Us Even As We Speak. Never a very organic-sounding band to start with, the results here are as clinical and unmoving as a fish-eyed lens' watchful gaze. It rocks, after a fashion, laying on the heavy guitar chording along with the experimental electronic touches, but it's painfully obvious stuff, crying out for vocals or anything, really, that resembles a valid, visceral emotion. Maybe the Illuminati dig it. We'll never know.

That's the pitfall of the so-called post-rock approach: In the well-meaning stab at newness, bands often come off as unfeeling. Gastr del Sol's 1996 album Upgrade and Afterlife was a prime example of that failing, plagued with shortwave noises that undercut the best moments of their avant-folk approach. The new Camoufleur, the final album by the band with its core duo of David Grubbs and Jim O'Rourke, is an appealing return to the land of the living. Quite nearly a pop record -- though a more spare and slippery form of it -- it's a charming, organic romp through varied styles of sonic experimentation.

Both Grubbs and O'Rourke are comfortable with more traditional song structures, when they care to employ them; Grubbs molded snappy punk-styled songs in Squirrel Bait, Bastro, and Bitch Magnet, while O'Rourke, on last year's magnificent Bad Timing, unleashed a dizzying excursion through folk, country, and Americana in general. Focusing on those instincts and setting aside the weirdness, Camoufleur finds the two and their cast of guest musicians at their most open and freewheeling: the insistent guitar strum of "The Seasons Reverse," the somber organ of "Each Dream Is an Example," the Oriental-flavored folk of "Black Horse." On the closing "Bauchredner," it even picks up a catchy drumbeat (courtesy of, again, Mr. McEntire), with O'Rourke's graceful finger-picking building steam as the song drives forward. It's a shame that the same can't be said for O'Rourke's pointless collaboration with Sonic Youth, Invito Al Cielo. The third in a series of EPs quietly released by Sonic Youth through last year, its 50 painful minutes betray another post-rock bugaboo: drone. Noises pop out -- horns, a clunky piano, some drums -- but mostly, it's a wandering hum. Like Esperanto, which inspired the song titles, it voices a pointlessly invented language few care to speak in, let alone hear.

Drone, as post-rock scholars know, is nothing new -- it goes back to John Cage (to name one avant-noise touchstone), just as the dub rhythms hearken back to Lee "Scratch" Perry and the avant-folk ideas sprung out of John Fahey's work. But even the combination of those concepts isn't something that came out of the Age of Tortoise. Take TNT, give it a backbone and a fright wig, and you've got Dub Housing, the 1978 masterpiece of absurdist punk by Clevelanders Pere Ubu. That band, like Tortoise, started with an attempt to fuck around with rock conventions. But unlike Tortoise, David Thomas, the band's leader, never forgot the power of a pure pop song, the way a well-placed hook or lyric could make you hear the music from an angle that you never knew existed. Before and since Dub Housing, for nearly 25 years, songwriter and vocalist Thomas has leapfrogged across genres and side projects, from the rough-hewn experimentalist rock he called "avant-garage" to the crafty pop of Ubu's highly underrated 1989 Cloudland. Both of those musical roads, and a few others, collide on the sharp, sinister Pennsylvania. Where Tortoise offer smooth transitions and rounded edges, Pennsylvania spends its 70 minutes fraying, snapping, and splintering. With Thomas' wailing voice shifting from a mutter to a scream, he sings laments for lost loves, lost places, and lost faith. "I can't get that stretch of road out of my head," he proclaims on the opening "Woolie Bullie." "I hear it when I'm taking a shower or reading the paper."

Brows furrowed, the band goes about the business of constructing a road map, a catalog of people and places, and the oddness that pervades them. From the fellow with the 75-year-old light bulb in "Mr. Wheeler" and the "hard-edged town" circled by the slinking rhythms of "Monday Morning" to "the loneliest highway in the world" that the rollicking "Drive" burns rubber on, the group conveys a scarifying nervousness about the world throughout the record. Except that its nervousness isn't willfully experimental, difficult, or forced. Indeed, what's most striking about Pennsylvania is just how tuneful and honest it is, catchy while retaining its offhanded feel. The immediate hooks of "SAD.TXT," the pummeling "Urban Lifestyle," and the closing rave-up "Wheelhouse" pave the way for the restful "Silent Spring" and the disarming chanting on "The Duke's Saharan Ambitions." The musicians -- particularly Robert Wheeler's haunting synthesizer and theremin, and Steve Mehlman's loose, evocative drumming -- approach the music artfully, but passionately. It's thinking man's rock, sure, but it's also the sound of a brilliant rock band creating great music the way it's always been done -- by fucking around with sounds and having a good laugh. Before it became post-rock, that's what they used to call it.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis


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