The past is a funny thing. While it grows blurrier the further we’re removed from it, certain key memories stick in memory, like persistent burrs; they just won’t shake loose. Shellac’s dynamite At Action Park? I drove my first car to Baltimore’s Soundgarden in the late fall of 1994 to cop that one. The Smashing Pumpkins’ Mellon Collie & The Infinite Sadness? Convinced a friend to buy me the double-cassette version in October 1995, then reimbursed him entirely in change. Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy? Gripped in the non-deluxe format at a Round Rock, Texas Target on release day.
Yet I have absolutely no idea how Millions Now Living Will Never Die tumbled into my orbit, when, where, or why I bought the thing — even though it retains as special a place in my heart as all the albums mentioned above, and many more besides. I was a freshman in college when Millions dropped — 20 years ago tomorrow. Tortoise’s sophomore album had exactly zero direct lineage to anything else in my steady musical diet of alt-rock, mall punk, busted twee, and Matador Records/Touch & Go ennui; it’s almost as though the CD simply materialized in my hands at some point in 1996, then very swiftly made itself at home in my boombox.
And Millions was the avowed opposite of what I considered my personal taste then: smooth, stealthy, calculated, and deeply, cerebrally uncool. The faded blue packaging was clearly the work of a sophisticated printing press, and communicated little about the musicians at a moment when the Internet was in its infancy. The music itself felt alien, mysterious, and profoundly self-confident in a way that seemed disconcerting and at odds with the ethos quasi-underground culture at the time. (In terms of sheer bravado, period hip-hop might be a better point of comparison.)
Millions is no less confounding two decades on, an invigorating, bionic mass of pulsations and cross-currents built from live performance and judicious editing. Opener “Djed” remains audacious in scope, still seems to breeze past in less than its actual 21-minute running time, and is impossible to experience without mentally filming (and then screening) an idiosyncratic road picture. Lightning strikes at a distance, and a chameleonic storm commences, powered by Doug McCombs’ sober bass and the surefooted drum work of John Herndon and John McEntire. A whirr that falls somewhere between a squeaky hinge and active windshield wipers gives way to a long plunge into the yolk of a veritable egg of creation: pickled keyboard vamps imitative of xylophones; loping, murmured stretches of almost-dub; baroque, electronic musique concrete; the strangling of signals.
Leaning hard on actual xylophones, “Glass Museum” dares to embrace the blues, firmly positing louche dreariness as a virtue before pulling an aggro about-face. Mid-album appetizer “A Survey” establishes an arrestingly spare, tug-of-war tension — Dave Pajo’s every guitar stroke there registers as a provocative ratchet twist … which the galloping “The Taut And Tame” obliterates straightaway. “Tame,” co-written by departing member Bundy K. Brown, is Millions’ brashest, most overtly petulant moment, an airtight, meticulously realized romp that inspires subconscious toe-tapping. The last two movements bleed into one another, with “Dear Grandma And Grandpa” smuggling Conet Project-esque samples into a massaged, sci-fi minimalism that gives way to the stark, affecting Ennio Morricone soundtrack homage that is “Along The Banks Of Rivers.”
No matter how often I hear Millions, I come away refreshed, and stronger afterwards; there is never the fog of fatigue produced by so many other records, including records by Tortoise themselves. And to some extent, that’s the rub of Millions. The band continued to evolve in the ensuing years, with Pajo departing and Chicago jazz vet Jeff Parker replacing him — but as great as TNT, Standards, and A Lazarus Taxon were and remain, the Tortoise sound has never been as trim, succinct, quintessential, and downright insistent as it was on Millions.
In a sense, Millions was to post-rock what Nirvana’s Nevermind was to grunge and Animal Collective’s Feels was to freak-folk: the once-in-a-scene cresting of a musical wave. Tortoise, of course, shared personnel with post-rock early adopters like Bastro, Eleventh Dream Day, and Slint — bands that quietly helped to legitimize the concept of sweeping, orchestral rock ‘n’ roll. But with Millions, Tortoise leap-frogged over the divide and into dorm rooms everywhere. All of a sudden, jazz-cum-conservatory chops bore a cachet that transcended stuffy symphony halls and felt legible in dingy performance venues, and entire worlds of then-obscure avant garde music revealed themselves to sonic adventurers; yesterday’s budding heshers found themselves digesting and geeking out over LPs by Can, Steve Reich, and the Weather Report. Millions was a poised zeitgeist dare that friends, arrogant record store clerks (remember them?), and your dad could all pretty much agree on.
While a horde of imitators and also-rans streamed along in their wake, the roll call of contemporaries and antecedents Tortoise helped to cultivate an audience for is a formidable one: …And You Will Know Us By The Trail of Dead, Mogwai, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Sigur Ros, and Rachel’s, among so many others. And even 20 years on, the austere, quizzical sweep of Millions leaves them all in the dust.