Forgotten series: Tortoise – Tortoise (1994)

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by Tom Johnson

I suppose the most effective argument I could make to indicate that this album got under my skin is that during the fourth track, titled “Onions Wrapped in Rubber,” I was imagining scenes from the 1986 sci-fi thriller Aliens.

Static-ridden visions of the Marines making their way through the dark recesses of the powerplant crossed my mind as the dull bass and drums ebbed and flowed in a mesmerising pattern. A chiming beep sounds throughout the track, further bringing to mind images from Aliens – the Marines located moving foreign lifeforms on handheld scanners that would beep in a similar fashion. The decisive moment came when I glimpsed a dark shape out of the corner of my eye and nearly jumped — heart pounding for just a moment — until I realized that the shape I saw leaning toward me was my jacket.

This is not to say that Tortoise is filled with “scary” music. It simply evokes a mood, and that track happened to be just enough on the creepy side to put the spook in me. The rest of the album is generally much less sinister, preferring instead to lean toward “introspective” via slowly building instrumental tracks. (Some may have vocals far in the background, but they aren’t lyrics and simply add to the atmosphere.)

Each track takes its time as instruments are gathered from silence, and often the same rhythms and motifs are simply repeated over and over until all instruments have taken their places on the sound stage. This is the kind of music that has to find the correct place to be heard. It doesn’t demand attention necessarily, because the music fills in its own blanks, but it deserves solitude to really appreciate it. In other words, this is “stroke your goatee and say ‘hmm, yes, this is intriguing'” record-shop geek music.

Luckily, I have previously sported the required goatee and a love of wandering the aisles in record shops.

Closing track “Cornpone Brunch” opens with the same snippet of 60’s BBC radio commercial that The Who’s Sell Out does (just before crashing into the careening mayhem of “Armenia City In The Sky”), making me realize that this may have been for an effect: Tortoise is precisely not The Who. Just what that means, I don’t know exactly, but it made me make the comparison momentarily, even if nothing came of it.

Which is a suitable way to sum up this album: It won’t come in and shock you with brave new statements but it slowly creeps into your consciousness. And maybe lays an egg there, but maybe that’s just Aliens again. As indie-rock as Tortoise may be, as far as I know, they sell t-shirts.

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Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson has contributed to Blogcritics, and maintained a series of stand-alone sites including Known Johnson, Everything is a Mess and others. He studied both creative writing and then studio art at Arizona State. Contact Something Else! at
Tom Johnson
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