EXCLAIM! 12th anniversary Concert featuring Tortoise , Four Tet and Beans with DJs Captain Easychord and nunk at the Phoenix (410 Sherbourne), tonight (Thursday, April 15). 19+. $16 advance. 416-323-1251. Rating: NNNNN
one thing i've gleaned from talking to various members of Chicago post-rock poster boys Tortoise is that those working within the Tortoise shell have a very different concept of progress than everyone else. I clearly recall how excited Tortoise drummer John Herndon was around this time last year when discussing the very different sound of their forthcoming album. He was particularly delighted by the prospects of a vocally driven track, The Lithium Stiffs - which he envisioned being sung by a full choir - and spoke about it as a watershed moment for Tortoise.
True enough, any singing at all on a Tortoise album would likely be newsworthy enough in the post-rock universe for a three-page think piece in Wire with a sidebar on Ennio Morricone's collaborations with Edda dell' Orso.
Yet in the context of their seriously mellow new It's All Around You (Thrill Jockey) disc, The Lithium Stiffs slips by virtually unnoticed, serving more as a low-key lead-in for the moody cinematic cue Crest than an album centrepiece.
In fact, the way the song is mixed, you'd never know the whooshy bit was actually someone gasping if Kelly Hogan (appearing with Neko Case at the Horseshoe April 28) weren't credited with "additional vocals" in the fine print. So what happened?
"The song idea was presented to the band by John as a demo that had a melody and some vocal samples," explains guitarist Doug McCombs from Chicago. "We thought it would be really cool to have a whole chorus of singers on it, but it proved logistically difficult to organize having all these singers in the studio at the same time.
"It seemed easier to just have Kelly Hogan come in and sing all the parts, so that's what we did."
While it's not quite Tortoise's proudest recorded moment, the subtle use of vocals is a promising move for the instrumental group, which hopefully will lead to more successful collaborative experiments in the future. Anything could happen.
"We've never consciously excluded the idea of using vocals. But since none of us really sings, it's not something that comes up when discussing new song ideas. On the other hand, we've talked a lot about the notion of working with outside vocalists.
"As far back as two years ago, the idea of collaborating with Will Oldham was considered, but we never got around to doing anything about it. We'd definitely be interested in working with a singer who's also a songwriter, but so far the right opportunity hasn't arisen."
Much more interesting than a quietly murmuring mash-up with the snooze-inducing Bonnie "Prince" Billy would be a confrontational collabo with a credible MC with some freestyle finesse and no fear of irregular rhythm patterns. Someone like Eyedea, MF Doom or just about anyone connected with Def Jux would make for an exciting showdown if the Tortoise crew ever get tired of making mood music for the cocktail crowd or creating soundtracks for films that don't exist.
"We were actually thinking of working on something to perform with Beans," says McCombs, "since he's going to be on tour with us. Maybe he could sing a song by the Fall or the Birthday Party with us.
"One of the great moments in Tortoise history came during this sour show at a cold and clammy club in Birmingham when Mike Ladd came up and rhymed on our song Speakeasy. It was so fucking awesome, I wish I had a tape of that. I'd love to work with him or some other singers to get a whole different dynamic going on. We just have to figure out a way to do it so it doesn't turn into a free-for-all." Tortoise slowly shake off the post-rock tag