The next time a musician tells you that the reason he's recycling other people's sounds is that there are no new ideas in the world, hand him this CD. Tortoise, an instrumental sextet made up of Chicago musicians associated with innovative acts such as Eleventh Dream Day and Gastr Del Sol, doesn't utilize radically reconfigured harmonic scales or instruments of its own invention. To the contrary, the group takes concepts from a wide variety of musical disciplines and combines them in ways that seem utterly fresh. In other words, the players practice the art of juxtaposition with delicacy, intelligence and skill. The title cut is emblematic of their approach. Against a gently melodic backdrop, Tortoise co-founders Douglas McCombs and John Herndon and their four compadres touch upon rock, jazz, electronic music and God knows what else. But because these influences are deeply embedded in the composition rather than sprinkled on top of it like a flavor packet used to spice up ramen noodles, the tune doesn't feel the slightest bit fussy or schematic. The organic nature of the act's methodology requires patience from a listener; some of the tunes tend to wander a bit. But stick around long enough and you'll realize that such tangents are part of the point. "Ten-Day Interval," a wholly successful experiment in Steve Reichian minimalism, gains resonance because of its placement next to "I Set My Face to the Hillside," a vaguely Spanish ballad that evokes a spaghetti-Western-soundtrack's worth of wistfulness and regret. Likewise, the loungy electronics of "In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men" segue beautifully into the quirky dance beats that percolate throughout "Almost Always Is Nearly Enough." TNT is not Top 40 material--none of these numbers will ever be mentioned by Casey Kasem. But anyone interested in hearing musicians forge into virgin territory rather than set up housekeeping in the usual places is apt to find it intoxicating. Slow and steady wins the race.
Around the Fur
In spite of short spurts of rebellion, the Deftones generally lay back in a way that shows why they got labeled a groove-metal band. But even though the members of this goateed, pierced quartet--Abe, Chi, Chino and Stef--temper their anger in a manner that sometimes suggests calculated boredom, a few of their tunes manage to hit the mark anyhow. "My Own Summer (Shove It)" sounds like something made to accompany a music video featuring surfers wiping out in slow motion, but Chino's cool moaning, whining and wailing actually make an impact. Elsewhere, "Rickets" hammers in an off-kilter way, and "Headup" shreds a hard rap over a Mudhoney-like riff. But the record's high point is its simplest, most straightforward track, "Be Quiet and Drive (Far Away)." The number's magic hides in its lyrics: When Chino screams, "I don't care where--just far," he figuratively pulls you into his car instead of leaving you in the dust. Suddenly you're in the song, too, looking over your shoulder out the back window.
The hip-hop-like groove that opens this CD implies that the recording is an attempt to introduce Curtis's music to an audience other than the one that considers Ellen to be the greatest TV show of all time. Trouble is, the producer Curtis enlisted to help bring her sound into the Nineties is Roy Bittan, who's best known for his work as a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band. The result is a disc that seems at odds with itself. The platter's most satisfying numbers, such as "River Winding" and "The Truth Is," hew closely to Curtis's bare-bones roots, and although the more ornate "I Still Want To"--which finds the singer soaring briefly into the breathy vocal register popularized by the likes of Paula Cole--is still fairly effective, other exercises in heavy production fall flat. The hyped-up piano noodling on "Forgiveness" is as appropriate as a Howard Stern appearance at an Indigo Girls concert, and the arrangement of "Do Unto Others" harks back so sentimentally to the glory days of Seventies rock that you half expect the sax solo that propels it to have been played by Clarence Clemons. Too bad it wasn't: Bittan ultimately might have been able to do more for his former bandmate than he has for Curtis.
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Van Halen III
Most people who've taken a swipe at this record have focused their abuse on new vocalist Gary Cherone, who is even less distinctive than Sammy Hagar. But the name that jumped out at me from the album's credits was Mike Post. No, I thought to myself, Eddie Van Halen couldn't have actually hired Post, the man who almost single-handedly wrecked television theme songs, to co-produce a disc that looms so large in the future of his band. But obviously, I was wrong: Post oversaw the making of the entire disc, and although Van Halen III doesn't sound all that much like the tunes he wrote for The Rockford Files and Hill Street Blues, there's a certain blandness about the album that I can't help but associate with him. Eddie hasn't lost his chops, but on a number of cuts, he seems more interested in showing off the precision of his picking than in rocking the house; to say the least, the opening instrumental, "Neworld," is no "Eruption," and "Once," a fairly powerless power ballad, goes on for well over seven minutes, which is at least four minutes longer than it should. The mellowness here is not total, but balls-out raveups such as "Without You" and "Fire in the Hole" are definitely in the minority--and worse, most of the relatively noisy tracks could be mistaken for random Whitesnake songs from ten years ago. The lyrics aren't much better; typical are those of "How Many Say I," a deliberate, keyboard-driven lecture with lines like "Did you ever look down when the homeless walked by/Or changed the channel when you saw a hungry child?" God, I miss David Lee Roth.