Wednesday, October 28, 2015

“TNT” by Tortoise

[This is an article I wrote for CHIRP Radio’s “Rediscovering Our Record Collections” series.]

I had been living in Chicago for a few months after relocating from Boston (where I lived for 8 years) with a short stint in Omaha, where I grew up. Not knowing anything about Chicago’s city’s neighborhoods, I had landed in the community of Edgewater, on the North Side right by the lake. It turned out to be a great place to get started as it was starting to feel the effects of the surge in commerce and urban renewal renovation resulting from the Dot-Com Era.

My apartment was a block away from Dominick’s grocery store (a local chain) and the CTA Red Line. Downtown was a straight shot south on Lake Shore Drive, and there were plenty of places to explore close to home. I had recently discovered the Village North movie theater, which showed a lot of excellent classic films, and The Atomic Café coffee shop right next door. I had never been a regular coffee drinker until that time, but after a few trips there as well as Café Boost, a wonderful independent shop a few blocks west on Clark Street, I started a romance with caffeine that continues to this day.


When casting about for ways to entertain myself, the Chicago Reader was indispensable. It came in four thick sections that made reading it look substantial even if you were just pursuing the Want-Ads or skimming concert previews. One weekend I read a short blurb about a local band called Tortoise. They were playing at a place called Metro. I’d never heard of Tortoise. I had never been to Metro. But the two together sounded delightful, so off I went.

The paper described the band’s music as “Post-Rock,” a term I would find out years later that the band hated, but to me is an apt description of the sound. When it was time for the band to perform, they walked out in lab coats, not saying anything or interacting with the crowd. The rising haze of second-hand smoke from various sources helped set the mood, the crowd reared up to look at their feet, and we were ready to go.

Their music was a revelation. I still don’t have the words to describe it accurately, except to refer to it as a mixture of pieces of what I would later learn made up Ambient, Dream-Pop, Shoegaze, and Drone…but not quite. For all the ephemeral creativity, the band’s music also had the kind of solid edges and clear-headed direction of a jazz ensemble. Having not heard much in the way of Avant-Garde music to that point, I didn’t quite understand what I was hearing, but I knew I was hooked.
After the show, I had to have a Tortoise album. For that, I went to a fantastic record shop called the Crow’s Nest. They had a store downtown in the Loop in the DePaul University building with an amazing back catalog of albums at rock bottom prices.

You could walk in pretty much any day and walk out with an armful of CDs having spent twenty dollars or less. Paying the Crow’s Nest a visit on Friday after work soon became my ritual, but I made a special trip the day after the Metro show. I bought TNT, went home and played it over and over. I don’t need to play it as much now because I’ve pretty much memorized it, but as I come across a track while listening to my MP3 player or CHIRP Radio, the music still sounds as forward-thinking and vital as it did when I first heard it.

This is the kind of album that lends itself to trite “It’s this, but that” descriptions. It sets up a mood, but it’s not Muzak. It’s abstracted, but concrete. It’s the kind of music that fits a side of Chicago people who don’t live here rarely see without knowing where to look.

The best way I found to describe the music is tough, because it doesn’t involve words. One day I was going out to a bar after work with a bunch of my co-workers. Walking down the street, I looked up and noticed a particular way the way the evening light hit the skyscrapers and structures of the city, highlighting the urban-ness of it all, like for a moment everybody in the Loop was in an Edward Hopper painting. That’s one way Tortoise’s music sounds like; It sounds like living in a big city and it’s Friday evening at sunset and you’re on your way out for the evening.

As of 2014, a lot of the places I used to go are gone. Cafés Boost and Atomic closed shop years ago. I’ve found even better replacements to satisfy my coffee cravings (all hail Metropolis Coffee Company!) but I've also figured out that Starbucks ain’t that bad either. Crow's Nest went out of business along with just about every other record store that saw itself facing the Internet and its (at the time) limitless and gratis selections of instant music - it’s hard to compete with free.

The Reader has changed radically from a four section black and white to a magazine-style format, a change that reflected the evaporation of the want-ad market as much as anything. I still read it every week. The Village North is still there, but has gone mainstream with its movie programming, swapping Hitchcock for Michal Bay and the demographic that comes with him. Even Dominick's, a Chicago chain that had been around for decades, is no more after being acquired by an out-of-town conglomerate that quickly decided it wasn’t profitable enough to stay in business.

In the Big City, change is the only permanent condition. Metro is still around, though, and still going strong. I’m glad I took a chance and stopped in there one evening to see a band that would become a permanent fixture of my music experience.

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