Tortoise, "The Catastrophist" (Thrill Jockey)

At the start of Tortoise in the early '90s, the possibilities seemed infinite. The Chicago band began as an outlet for local musicians moonlighting from their jobs in more conventional rock groups. Now a quarter-century into the quintet's existence, there is a "Tortoise sound" — collagelike instrumental music that veers between structured compositions and jazzlike improvisation — and a host of bands around the world who grew up emulating at least parts of it.

But the group's output has slowed in recent years as the band members focused on other projects, and "The Catastrophist" arrives as its first album in nearly seven years.

Doug McCombs, John Herndon, John McEntire, Jeff Parker and Dan Bitney aren't exactly trying to pick up where they left off. The album grew out of a city commission in 2010 to compose music that reflected the band's ties to Chicago's jazz scene. Since then, the pieces have been put through the band's loosely defined studio-as-instrument editing and mixing blender, but with a few twists.

The biggest surprise? Two of the tracks have genuine lead vocals, with U.S. Maple's Todd Rittman delivering a sleazy cover of the old David Essex hit, "Rock On," and Yo La Tengo's Georgia Hubley cooing gently atop the "Surf's Up"-style melancholy of "Yonder Blue." But they're among the album's least adventurous tracks. Convention just doesn't suit these guys.

Instead, they're best when dabbling in the exotic, the offbeat, the slightly unsettling. Smooth surfaces are never quite what they seem in the best Tortoise songs. The album also affirms that the "Tortoise sound" — whatever that really is — isn't as self-serious as some may think. "The Catastrophist" bristles with left turns and trap doors.

The gamelanlike melody in "Shake Hands With Danger" shouldn't go with the spy-movie undertow in the song, but it only accelerates the tension. "The Clearing Fills" starts off spacious and vaguely dreamy, but a clomping percussion loop morphs into something eerier — a dark, enveloping fog of crackling synthesizers. A repetitive keyboard riff in "Gesceap" underlies a building commotion of instruments. The rumble of timpani and long, dramatic chords swoop in to hijack the luminous guitar in "At Odds With Logic." And "Gopher Island" makes the most of two counterpoint burping, buzzing synth tracks — it's 73 seconds of screwing around that suggests a cartoon soundtrack. Yes, Tortoise actually sounds like it's having fun.

Tortoise plays the Cedar Cultural Center in Minneapolis on March 9.

Greg Kot, Chicago Tribune


Hank Williams Jr., "It's About Time"

(Big Machine )

"Hell, yes, I'm an icon," he declares with typical bravado in "Dress Like an Icon." "Don't call me an icon," he urges with uncharacteristic humility in "Just Call Me Hank."

Mixed messages aside, Bocephus is in blazingly fine form on "It's About Time." He's still as self-referential as any rapper, and he gets a little ornery when he perceives a threat to his "God and Guns." But he steers clear of the boorishness that sometimes mars his work.

From his take on Neil Young's "Are You Ready for the Country" (with Eric Church) to his own, set-closing "Born to Boogie" (with Brad Paisley, Brantley Gilbert and Justin Moore), the self-professed "dinosaur" offers a primer on Southern rock and barroom honky-tonk. "The Party's On," indeed.

Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer