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Album review: Tortoise's 'Beacons of Ancestorship'

June 22, 2009 |  7:25 pm
Tortoise_beacons_240_ Tortoise, Chicago's venerable crew of rock-'n'-roll boundary breakers, has an illustrious history of dazzling first tracks. Any old band knows to frontload an album with a party-starter but few do it with such an unimpeachable sense of brainy fun.

"High Class Slim Came Floatin' In," the opener to "Beacons of Ancestorship," Tortoise's sixth full-length and its first release of new material in five years, is a cold funk telegram informing us that Tortoise is turning out its most invigorated set of omnivorous instrumentals since 1998's "TNT."

The eight-minute-plus jam trips with heavy synth chunks, high-finesse drums and an ending that sounds like a chillier version of the kaleidoscopic intro to the Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again."

"Beacons of Ancestorship" is still typical Tortoise. The five-piece appropriates form any genre, including rampaging punk, techno, twitchy jazz and desert-baked samba, but with renewed adventure. The 11 tracks burble and skitter to new corners and heights.

At times, the gentlemen feel like they're retreating to their comfort zone: "Minors" seems hardly more than a bridge to the calmer closing numbers, but after "Yinxianghechengqi," a crazed tiger of a track, or "The Fall of Seven Diamonds Plus One," the stormy love child of John Coltrane and Ennio Morricone, a little catnap seems in order.

-- Margaret Wappler 

"Beacons of Ancestorship"
Thrill Jockey
Three stars