Tortoise and Chicano Batman Proved Lyrics Don't Really Matter

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When I was much younger, lyrics were supreme. Nothing else mattered as much as what the singer was trying to express via libretto. It was only after years of reviewing music and hearing the same sentiment over and over — the voice is just an instrument — that I finally started to come around and realize, yeah, it doesn’t always matter what’s being sung.

Last night at Crescent Ballroom, this was demonstrated in three distinct ways by Tortoise, Chicano Batman, and Jjuujjuu. One band obscured their vocals, another gave little to no emphasis on their lyrics, and the last band (surely you can guess who) didn’t have any singing at all.

When I arrived at Crescent Ballroom, the place was just picking up. A DJ was spinning vinyl, and folks were milling around with their drinks anywhere but near the stage. But things ran on time and Jjuujjuu took the stage promptly at 7:30, starting with a slow bass lurch.

My immediate thought was, how much of Jjuujjuu’s tour budget was spent on shampoo? These boys had big, frothy, curly heads of hair. It was amazing. They seemed more like cuddly mountain men than folks from Los Angeles. The bassist seemed so sensitive and sad-looking, just completely focused on his riff. I wanted to ask him what was up. He was wearing the coolest shirt I saw all night and was playing so concentratedly, I felt like there was no reason for him to be bummed. 
But the pensiveness almost immediately exploded into fury. Whatever I was thinking about earlier was gone — this band had all of my attention, and smiles broke out all around. At first, Jjuujjuu was math-y, prog rock soon complimented by echoic, reverb-drenched vocals. You couldn’t hear a word that was sung, but who cares? The burly singer/guitarist swung his head around like a mop of red seaweed, and it was exhilarating.

Their next track slowed down, featuring more bass slapping and almost tribal trance rhythms. Jjuujjuu were able to segue from drum and bass mixed with shoegaze feedback to post-metal heaviness. They followed up with something that reminded me of Soft Moon. I have never seen a drummer play so asymmetrically before, yet keep it together so well. He seemed like the kind of guy you could talk to about Neil Peart for hours.

The room filled up fast for this. Jjuujjuu’s set was explosive and long — five songs stretched out to a 40-minute set — but most of all, it was arresting.
Chicano Batman took the stage next. It was drummer Gabriel Villa’s birthday tonight, as announced by lead singer Bardo Martinez before the band promptly got down to it. They were a tightly wound machine—a few times, even their shoulders jerked in unison as they played. They began with a twangy instrumental before moving into “Cycles of Existential Rhyme.” That lovely organ Martinez makes love to made it feel like taking a Cadillac on an oceanside drive.

They played just like it was an intimate family affair on a surfy, beach paradise as they cut into “Black Lipstick.” The weather in Phoenix that night was pretty good to begin with, but somehow Chicano Batman made it even better, even indoors. Soon the song grinded from surf into garage rock, going from dreamy instrumentals to songs in Spanish punctuated by organ and reverb.

I got an education in Arizona, so of course my Spanish is shit. I didn’t understand much of what little was being sung, but it didn’t matter — I knew it was lovely. For the last few years, I find myself more and more attracted to music lacking lyrics or in a language I don’t speak. It’s easier for me to just enjoy the music rather than get bogged down with some arbitrary message. The voice is just an instrument.

On “La Manzanita,” a disco ball descended from the ceiling and the crowd chimed back with laughter and Grito Mexicano. There was much swaying and dancing, which isn’t exactly common in Phoenix. It felt beautiful and perfect and otherworldly. When CB played “Magma” I couldn’t help but cry a little. I can’t explain why and it’s a little embarrassing, but I was definitely emotional. After their set, the crowd briefly begged for an encore, but to no avail.

Finally, it was Tortoise’s turn. The odd thing about post-rock concerts is that even if you know what to expect, you don’t know what to expect. You expect a 90-minute set filled with erratic time signatures, dueling drum kits, and no pauses in between. But even if this is pretty much exactly what happened, it was still surprising, engaging, and absolutely delightful.

Tortoise was one of the first post-rock bands ever, which means they’re almost exactly as old as I am. Post-rock is a genre tag that basically means “lotsa guitars and no lyrics,” so therefore, no one really likes the label. (But no one really ever likes being tagged in any genre anyway. Most bands want to exist in this limbo where they are untouched by categories, even if when talking about something abstract like music it helps to have some kind of guidepost.) 

Nevertheless, Tortoise is one of those rare bands that does escape a lot of the pigeonholing. Their mix of dub, minimalism, Krautrock, and jazz flourished with electronica isn’t something as simple as other post-rock contemporaries like Explosions in the Sky or God is an Astronaut. 
Like the bands before them, Tortoise wasted no time launching into their set, which would last approximately 90 minutes and encompass no less than two encores. It began with flaring synths, smooth and jazzy-like. Tortoise keeps their drum kits front and center, which is so smart — more bands should do this. Watching drummer John McEntire hit those ride cymbals and spin them around like Ferris wheels on crack is so rewarding you’ll wonder why the drum kit isn’t always the star attraction. Which brings us to the dueling drums, which you can never seem to fail with. Why do so many bands have two guitarists? They should have two drummers instead.

As a newer fan of Tortoise, I can’t tell you what songs were played specifically. Some were recognizable, others were not. It could all just been Track 1, Track 2, etc. Lyrics don’t matter to Tortoise, but even song titles don’t matter. In fact, Doug McCombs said this verbatim during the first encore: “Any questions about the titles of our songs? Go fuck yourself.”

But as a stoner rock-critic, I can tell you how the songs made me feel. Song 9 let a shimmering synth settle over a mechanical beat until the guitar cracked through like a dandelion in a sidewalk. Song 10 was soothing and woozy like a ray of sunshine on a bay of glittering porpoises. From start to finish, it was intense. 

Tortoise played a good number of cuts from their first album in nearly seven years, The Catastrophist. Pitchfork described the record as Tortoise's first album to ever prominently feature guest vocalists (there are two whole tracks with singing!), but that isn’t quite accurate if you count In The Fishtank 5 or The Brave and the Bold, Tortoise’s covers albums they made with Bonnie "Prince" Billy.

I was impressed how effortlessly Tortoise members swapped instruments, often in the middle of a song, without losing concentration. I’m not much of a musician, but being able to play marimba one moment and drums the next seems like it would require some interesting mental gymnastics.

So you see, lyrics really aren’t necessary. Sure, they can be nice — just ask Bob Dylan or Conor Oberst — but generally, you can do without. So whether you fade those wet sounds your throat makes beneath your throbbing bass with reverb or sing infrequently or don’t sing at all, you can still make for one incredible night.

Critic’s Notebook

Last Night: Tortoise, Chicano Batman, Jjuujjuu at Crescent Ballroom

The Crowd: A pretty good-sized mob of folks, but not too many people so it wasn’t overwhelming. Folks were happy and danced and seemed blissed out.

Overheard: “Check this out,” a dude said as he pulled up his shirt and tugged down his jeans ever-so-slightly, revealing a familiar DC Comics logo printed on his boxers. “Batman!”

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