The second Tortoise album made the Chicagoans icons of post-rock
I’d never heard anything quite like Tortoise when I first heard their second album, 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die. I’m not sure I have since, either.
There aren’t all that many records that have changed the way I hear music. The controlled cacophony of Public Enemy’s It Takes A Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back is one; The Bomb Squad’s production poured hot lava into my brain and scrambled everything in the process. Another is Scritti Politti’s Cupid and Psyche 85 – specifically its four “versions” tacked onto the end of the cassette/CD, which I wrote about for Stylus in 2005, and which taught a midwestern 14-year-old his first lessons about dub.
AUDIO: Tortoise Peel Session 1996
Actually, I take back my opening sentence. There was one clear antecedent for Tortoise: Slint, particularly their 1991 album Spiderland. Which makes plenty of sense, since multi-instrumentalist David Pajo was a member of the latter, and joined Tortoise before they recorded Millions. And which makes even more sense when you consider how Spiderland is such a landmark in the evolution of post-rock, and how Millions is one of the next steps in the – well, what is post-rock? An anti-genre? What is this album, anyway?
There’s so much going on on Millions, and it’s almost more about what it isn’t than what it is. There’s slightly glitchy beats and samples (“Dear Grandma and Grandpa”), but it’s not trip-hop. There’s stuff akin to improvisational jazz (“The Taut and Tame,” “Djed”), but it’s not jazz. “The Taut and Tame,” again, also sounds almost post-hardcore at points, but isn’t that either. Millions is rock instrumentation used for something that’s not rock, that’s in many ways not anything discernible, genre-wise. Even today, 25 years later, it still largely sounds new, and other.
“Glass Museum” could almost be an instrumental outtake from Slint’s Spiderland – but it also features a xylophone. And then, shortly after the three-minute mark, the song takes off in a completely different direction. Where it had previously been slow, almost stately, it starts galloping, increasing in intensity – and then, suddenly, it slows down and goes back to its original theme, with only about a minute left in the song. This is the sound of musicians who understand the way jazz works, choosing not to play jazz, yet still playing in that, uh, playground.
AUDIO: Tortoise “DJed (Bruise Blood Remix)”
You shouldn’t listen to Millions in a vacuum, either. Tortoise released a series of 12” singles of remixes of songs from the album, which were compiled as Remixed, and those put a completely different spin on the material, opening it up in alternate ways. Two versions of “Djed” – one a semi-conventional trip-hoppy take by U.N.K.L.E., the other a Krautrock-gone-soul version from group member John McEntire – make no, yet perfect, sense against each other. (And each cribs from a different section of the original, which at 20:57 has plenty of song to be played with.) Oval’s Markus Popp remixes two selections; his aesthetic matches nicely with Tortoise. Spring Heel Jack goes drum’n’bass, of course, on his, as does Luke Vibert. Jim O’Rourke’s “Reference Resistance Gate” might make the most sense here, a broken-beat version that’s essentially a new composition that sounds completely of a piece with Millions.
And all of this music, both the original album and its remixed counterparts / cousins, feels like it keeps mutating and moving, never sitting still, always changing. Like in the best prog rock and/or free jazz, elements keep revealing themselves. Millions, in fact, definitely opened my mind up to freer forms of jazz (hello, Ornette Coleman), listening to the interplay between the different instruments on the album and the way they’re played. You may get something completely different out of it. Hell, you’ll likely get something completely different out of each individual listen to it. A quarter-century after its release, Millions Now Living Will Never Die continues to evolve and breathe freely – and thanks to that, so do my ears.