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Tortoise – TNT/Swung From Thr Gutter (90s – 70)

August 5, 2013

I know this isn’t true Synesthesia but often the colour of a CD cover influences how I hear the music. The colours of Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II and the Art of Noise’s Seduction of Claude Debussy share a range of dark blues. When I listen to either album I think of the music in terms of such blues. Specifically I think of the synthesiser lines as shimmering dark blues, the music hinting at these shades. I realise the fact both albums do this is reinformed by the fact both albums share producer Trevor Horn and singer Sally Bradshaw, and similar sound template as a result – but the feeling of this blue is palpable.

In the same way has there ever been an album more white than Tortoise’s TNT.

When I stumbled across this album in the 2UNE radio library, I thought the cover was a replacement one from a blank CD – the sort of white lined CD cover onto which I would occasionally try to neatly copy the names of artists and tracks in defiance of my normal scrawl. But no, the fake blank CD cover with a black texta figure is an entirely appropriate cover for this Robert Rymanesque album.

The sound is so white. Everything is muted. The beats are mostly mixed back; the vibraphones their normal delicate sheen (which I hate in mainstream jazz but like almost everywhere else); the brass, where it appears, is understated. Guitars and basses are neither the polite jazz sound, not raucous fuzz, but often low in the mix. There is a severe lack of a continuing musical bed – rarely a synth drones, nor surprising from a mainly percussive band.

Everything sounds distant, foggy. Even the opening drum riff on the track TNT, with have the metallics of the flying cymbals seem seem lost in the mist. The low guitar notes are the single most distinctive sounds on the album, a fleeting moment of clarity before it sinks into the mix.

TNT and Swung from the Gutters are the opening two part suite. TNT is the loudest part of the album, the brass stabs on both tracks the best bits of the album. There is a deliberate limiting of sound palette, of constraint, which matches the tight playing of the group. Even the processing chaos in Swung form the Gutter sounds like it is trapped in a narrow tunnel unable to escape. The music is laid down and flattened out. The effect is wonderful.

The whole album is so white – shimmering warm heat, sterility (but not in a bad way), contained energy, a blanketing of snowy sound. For me this is the best album the band released.

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