TORTOISE at the Phoenix, May 13. Tickets: $16. Attendance: 800. Rating: NN Rating: NN
somewhere in the process of becoming perfect, Tortoise have forgotten how to be a band.
As on the Chicago art-rock combo's most recent records, no notes were out of place during Sunday's early set at the Phoenix. The rhythms stuttered and broke where they should, every ultra-complex chord change fit in, and every sound the band played was sculpted and reshaped through a couple of computers at the back of the room. It sounded fantastic but was even more boring than it sounds.
Head-to-head vibraphone duels and the big, sample-ready beats banged out on the pair of drum kits at the back of the dark stage were obvious crowd-pleasers, and John McEntire coaxed a range of bizarre sounds out of his stack of keyboards. Even with Jeff Parker's melodic guitar-strumming, though, Tortoise's moody soundscapes seem consumed by their own importance, over-composed and packing none of the improvisational spark that made past shows, and recordings, stand out.
The spectacularly distorted twin guitar attack at the beginning of Seneca, the best track on Tortoise's grim new Standards disc, broke up the mood with a few minutes of hair-blowing intensity, but also happened to be the end of the set.
Five years ago Tortoise were considered groundbreaking and the future of rock music. When one of your most experimental tracks, like the 1996 epic Djed, sounds like classic rock, though, it's game over.