There's always been something dreamy about Tortoise's fusion of rock, improvisation, and studio manipulation, and that quality reaches an all-time high with It's All Around You. In the intervening period since 2001's rough- edged Standards was released, the members of this Chicago collective have pursued a number of other projectswhat is a side project, anyway?ranging from out jazz to digital sound manipulation.
The five-strong membership of Tortoise this time around includes John McEntire, John Herndon, Doug McCombs, Jeff Parker, Dan Bitney. McEntire is responsible for the operation of Soma Electronic Music Studios, where the project was gradually nursed along over the course of a year's time. Having that time and space meant that composition could take place alongside performance, exploration integrated with a gradual over-reaching order. As a result, the music feels lush and well-integrated, not unlike the lush vegetation and streams that dot its packaging. Basic (shared) instrumentation of mallets, keys, guitars, bass, and drums somehow expand to fill the space.
Most of It's All Around You feels pretty mellow, though a few dramatic exceptions attract notice. A floating, otherworldly character manifests itself immediately on the record and persists through 44 minutes of development, concluding with relaxed, bell-like clockwork at the start of "Salt the Skies." But that's a false comfort which soon enough submits to a persistent, forward rock groove that gets extremely noisy and frenzied. Resolving in the opposite direction, "Dot/Eyes" struts purposefully through heavy, distorted tribal beats (the same sort of odd modern/primitive fusion often preferred by Tortoise) before yielding to butterflies and sunflowers almost four minutes later.
But those dissonant moments are the exception. "Crest" has the bell-like resonance minus the heavy beats, though it's definitely propulsive in its own laid-back way. The processed textures here feel like a dream sequence from a '70s movie soundtrack, scooting along at a leisurely pace without rushing at any point. The shifty, subtle polyrhythms of "The Lithium Stiffs" stand in contrast to the gentle, massaged voice-like harmonies that briefly illuminate the space along the way. "By Dawn" takes it all laying down, relaxing nestled between samples and glitchy extras.
In Tortoise's shifty give-and-take between live performance and studio tweaking, there have been moments where the latter takes a dominant role (as with the superlative TNT ). I have no doubt that these five musicians can deliver the goods on stage, but It's All Around You is very much a product of the environment in which it was spawned. In these hands, that's a good thing.