Finding the One: A Tortoise Retrospective
Tortoise’s story begins, in a sense, to the sound of Coltrane’s golden lamentation, Africa/Brass, its frenetic drone finding the ears, and fingers, of Doug McCombs and John Herndon circa 1988 in Chicago. The two are playing with Michael Cerzigan in a band dubbed “Simple”, and while the trio never manages to perform beyond their rehearsal space, they do jam ceaselessly and often to “Africa”–a track that helps trace the art and intent of Tortoise, and to account for the band’s sterling new album, The Catastrophist. (Interesting to note that an influence as important to the band’s sound as Coltrane, Steve Reich, was just as affected as a young man by side A, one track, of Africa/Brass).
In many ways—especially musically—Chicago in the late 80’s is one giant, vibrant patchwork of contradiction. The city has recurrently given birth to the million-selling act, cats like Kanye, R. Kelly, and Chaka Khan, Styx, REO Speedwagon, Cheap Trick, and of course, Chicago. Equally vital, and always teeming beneath the slick cover of the marketable scene, are the rappers and DJs, the punk, hardcore, rock, post-rock, indie, and whatever-else bands that make the city truly vital to the American landscape. In the Reagan era, these groups forge and follow traditional DIY paths—making and unloading tapes and merch, swapping records with other regulars, going to your friend’s show who’s got a band too, and even playing in that guy’s band when necessary—all while creating singularly new styles of music never before heard, but certainly not without precedent, which is to say, roots. It’s remarkable the number of seminal acts who start out around ’89-’90 in the Windy City: Urge Overkill, The Jesus Lizard, Local H, Liz Phair, Eleventh Dream Day, Ministry, The Squids, Veruca Salt, My Life With the Thrill Kill Kult, Material Issue, LaTour, The Tossers, and The Smashing Pumpkins—all in their various musical wombs, about to bring themselves into the light of the ever-evolving sonic world.
Read the full essay at Fogged Clarity.
Being It: The World of Arthur Russell
Among the (pop) music cognoscenti Arthur Russell holds an almost vatic position, if only for the seemingly supernatural breadth of his oeuvre, one that just about spans the entirety of the American musical landscape, from disco to folk to classical and every little genre-niche in between. Then there are his basic, almost preposterous, biographical facts: he was a classically trained cellist from Iowa, a one-time Buddhist monk-in-training, Allen's Ginsberg's lover for a time, a primitive god of late-70’s disco, and a close friend of Phillip Glass—on multiple occasions the well-known minimalist offered Russell, ever-humble, a venue in which to perform his more avant-garde classical compositions. While Russell’s influence is undeniable, it has seeped into the fabric of modern music to such a degree that it's almost unnoticeable. He's the ground hum you never hear, the drone you don't notice simply because it's always there.
The current trend of pop music songsmiths composing for string quartet or orchestra (see Johnny Greenwood, Bryce Dessner, Sufjan Stevens, and others) began with Arthur Russell. Or rather, the audacity of attempting every style possible, and in his case, succeeding and irrevocably changing those styles, was Russell's bread and butter. He never seemed to be trying at all. Born into the cornfields and silos of Oskaloosa, Iowa, a young Russell eventually made his way to San Francisco where he joined a Buddhist commune. Forbidden to play his cello, he would sneak into the closet at night to play alone, in total darkness. From there he went on to study Indian musical styles with Ali Akbar Khan, a vocalist and sarod player, and by the time he'd decided to pack up and make the storied three thousand mile journey to New York City the man's creative deck was full. Everything Russell was to write, everything from then until his death from AIDS at the age of 40, was informed by the drone of Indian raga, the Buddhist monk's insistent chant, and a certain expansive radiance, that of the sea and the fields and a mind turning in on itself again and again, all the colors racing to blur.
Read the full essay at Impression of Sound.