the-catastrophist-coverTortoise has never been a group to rest on any laurels. Though certainly its members have recognizable styles of playing — from the varied beats produced by dual drummers John McEntire and John Herndon, not to mention the added percussive activity by Dan Bitney, to the clean, crisp guitar lines of Jeff Parker to the deep, affected bass lines of Doug McCombs — Tortoise has changed from album to album every time. With every release over its 25 years as a group, Tortoise has challenged listeners to dare to listen closely and engage with their instrumental jazz-driven, electronica-inspired progressive instrumental rock (Albums that have stood the test of time: Tortoise – ‘Millions Now Living Will Never Die’ [1996]). Their’s was never ambient music, though it has often been pigeon-holed into the genre of post rock.

Seven years after producing one of their more defiant albums to date, the noise-heavy Beacons of Ancestorship, Tortoise was coaxed back into activity by its hometown of Chicago, whose officials tasked them to create a suite of music that paid homage to the city’s musical history. The result is The Catastrophist, a bold return to form that leaves none of the group’s itches to experiment with melodies, effects and reverberating noise unscratched.

The album opens with a bit of a psyche-out via the title track and a squeaky repetitive synth melody that sets a false sense of an electronic heavy record but whooshes out of the way to make way for one of Parker’s luscious, tranquil guitar lines and McCombs’ solid, throbbing base against the high-pitched hum of shimmering organ work and crisp tqP32rqGdrumming. It sounds like classic Tortoise, with breakdowns allowing for some simple organ work augmented by resonant, low-vibe work (it’s mixed low, but it’s there— get on your headphones). With the album’s second track, “Ox Duke,” and its understated swelling of organs, electronics and subtly rumbling percussive work that even enters a loop of bottom heavy bass that recalls the early sonics of Tortoise, you might be forgiven to think that this is a record set on returning to the band’s early nineties roots.

But then comes the group’s rendition of David Essex’s 1973 hit “Rock On.” The bass is so heavily processed in the deep end, you don’t hear it as much as feel it in the vibration of the speakers. Still, it keeps the integrity of the original with Dead Rider’s Todd Rittman taking vocal duties. Rittman could have held back on the vocals a bit, and the added voices accentuating certain words in opposite speakers can be a bit over the top, but the band still plays with a mischievous restraint, adding whizzing effects, rumbling chords and creaks so heavily processed that seem to tear at the insides of your sound system.

This is the real beginning of the new album, and Tortoise remain coy and playful throughout, fully embracing a sort of new-found inspiration. Once again the band members play around with electronics and processed effects that are transporting, most notably on the album’s most tranquilizing track, the patiently developing, ticking and shimmering “The Clearing Fills.” The band released a digital single ahead of the album, “Gesceap,” which featured brilliant layering of shifting organ drones and repetitive guitar work that builds into a multi-melodic wall of sound that recalls the early work of Philip Glass. “Hot Coffee” features a funky, grooving bass line and an urge to break out that speaks to the group’s roots in fusion. There’s also an additional track featuring vocals, “Yonder Blue.” This time Yo La Tengo’s Georgia Hubley contributes. It’s a pretty song that melodically glistens with subtly affected instrumentation fitting snugly with Hubley’s hushed, sleepy voice and even features a warm vibraphone solo during its finale.

The Catastrophist is a welcome return for Tortoise and proves that a band too often categorized as an example of a certain scene and era of alternative music can still prove vital by staying true to its sound, but also pushing at its limitations. Most of all, they sound like they are having fun.

Hans Morgenstern

The Catastrophist will be officially released Friday, Jan. 22. Also being released on that date are reissues of Tortoise’s back catalog on colored vinyl. Visit their artist page for each title. Pitch Perfect PR provided an mp3 version of the album for the purpose of this review. Images of the front and back cover of the album are courtesy of Tortoise. The band is currently on tour. For dates visit their page, here. Nope, no South Florida dates for us. 😦

(Copyright 2016 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)

life-itself-posterIt takes a courageous sense of perspective for a filmmaker to get to the place necessary to make a review-proof documentary, and director Steve James deserves all the praise he has so far received for Life Itself. James burst onto the documentary scene in 1994 with Hoop Dreams, a film that has stood up so well 20 years later because the director showed a clear understanding of staying true to his subject no matter how distressing the picture became. With Life Itself, James turns his lens on film critic Roger Ebert during his final days.

A well-known seeker of humanity in cinema, Ebert comes across as the ideal subject for James, ready to open himself up to the film with as much honesty as he can humanly muster. It helps that Ebert’s trust for James began with Hoop Dreams. After all, the Chicago Sun-Times film critic championed the film when it first came out, giving it a four-out-of-four-star rating. To Ebert, a four-star film had to transcend the screen as something more than escapism. He opened his review with a typically bold statement for a movie bestowed with a perfect rating:  “A film like Hoop Dreams is what the movies are for. It takes us, shakes us, and makes us think in new ways about the world around us. It gives us the impression of having touched life itself.”

James has now given Ebert the ultimate payback. The filmmaker employs his perceptive lens to document the writer’s life and the aftermath of his death with an empathy that is both a tribute to Ebert and a gift to those who will see this film. Ebert sidewalk Medallion. Photo by Hans MorgensternIt opens with a snippet of a speech Ebert gave during the dedication ceremony of his sidewalk “medallion” in front of the historic Chicago Theatre. “For me,” he says, “the movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” James has certainly taken this to heart, as he seeks out the person that was Ebert over any sense of grandiose legend.

If there is any doubt of that, James gives us an unflinching scene while Ebert was hospitalized. A nurse uses a gastronomy tube to suction out Ebert’s throat (cancer left the writer without most of his jaw and robbed him of the ability to drink, eat and speak). In a brief but uninterrupted take, Ebert squints and shudders, his lower lip swaying without muscle or bone support. The sound of liquid rushing through the tube mixes with Ebert gasping for air. It’s quick but clearly painful and after the nurse removes the tube, our man slumps over exhausted but gives the nurse a thumbs up. Later that day, Ebert sends James an e-mail that reads, “I’m happy we got a great thing that nobody ever sees:  Suction.”


Ebert understood the role pain plays in appreciating life, so of course he would find a not-so-subtle way to encourage James to include the scene (Ebert is also the guy who wrote the screenplay for Beyond the Valey of the Dolls, after all, so he also appreciated anything in-your-face or maybe over-the-top). In a way, James grants Ebert input in a gesture that acknowledges that this film critic knows the value of dramatic dynamism in telling a story. A film that’s supposed to cover a life in less than two hours needs resonant moments like these that may disturb to inform the lighter, more banal moments.

Throughout Life Itself James captures many sides of Ebert. He was a cocky young reporter, but he also knew how to empathize with his subjects at an early age. James does not gloss over the younger Ebert’s penchant for drinking and whoring but gives 4equal time to his decision to join AA and settle down with Chaz Ebert. His widow also comes clean for the first time that she too was in AA, and that was where she met her husband. It’s a gesture that shows how deep she loved Ebert; she understands presenting her vulnerability stands as testament to the love of her life. She now carries on that affection by managing his website, which continues to put out exemplary film criticism in the spirit of Ebert.

Of course much of the Life Itself spends time on his television work with fellow Chicago film critic and beloved nemesis Gene Siskel. James captures a rivalry full of humor and pathos that grows into a profound affection for the other. But Life Itself stands as something so much more than a movie about a movie critic. Though James spends time going into what drove Ebert’s aesthetic principles as a film critic, featuring insights from the likes of A.O. Scott, Richard Corliss and Jonathan Rosenbaum, this is a film less concerned with film criticism than it is humanity. Even these critics toss off observations about Ebert’s style on a personal level, as if Ebert’s writing was an extension of his persona. That’s the power of having a distinctive voice, that an essence of the author can exist in his words. For that, despite his suffering, Ebert is fortunate to have found a bit of immortality that will continue to touch readers, and Life Itself is a worthy cinematic totem to not only Ebert but the Ebert sensibility that lives on in much of film criticism.

Hans Morgenstern

Life Itself runs 118 minutes and is rated R (language and images of R-rated movies and stills). It opens in South Florida on July 11 at O Cinema Wynwood, Miami Beach Cinematheque, The Bill Cosford Cinema, Cinema Paradiso-Hollywood, Cinema Paradiso-Fort Lauderdale. On July 18 it opens at O Cinema Miami Shores (which happens to be Roger Ebert day in Chicago). It has theatrical opening dates scheduled through October. Visit the film’s official website for details. Magnolia Pictures provided us with a preview screener for the purpose of this review.

Update: O Cinema has finalized a critics panel preceding Saturday’s 2 p.m. screening. Meet some of South Florida’s film critics (in order of how well I know them, from seeing almost daily to never having met). It starts at 1 p.m., and it’s free (you will have to pay for the film):
Miami SunPost’s Rubén Rosario (
Miami New Times Cultist contributor Juan Barquin(
Reuben Pereira (
Kai Sacco (
Billy Donnelly (
Andres Solar (
Marc Ferman (

(Copyright 2014 by Hans Morgenstern. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission.)