February 22, 2001

Not Your 'Standard' Rock Band

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It would be somewhat unfair to point out that Standards is Tortoise’s first album since 1998’s TNT. After all, in the absence of a proper album, the Tortoise members have been far from lazy or inactive. Doug McCombs has recorded two albums as Brokeback (including the recently-released Morse Code in the Modern Age), as well as recording and touring with Eleventh Dream Day. The always-active John McEntire has drummed for his other full-time band, the Sea & Cake, as well as getting behind the producing boards for a staggering number of artists, including Smog and Stereolab. Meanwhile, fellow Tortoise-heads Dan Bitney, John Herndon, and Jeff Parker have released two albums with jazz collective Isotope 217.

But now, these longtime Chicago scenesters have reunited to once again rock the world together. As if the above resume didn’t tip you off, Tortoise is not your average band. All of the members are talented multi-instrumentalists with backgrounds in punk, jazz, metal, and even reggae. On their three previous studio albums, Tortoise have combined traditional jazz compositional ideas with an emphasis on virtuoso instrumentalism and an experimental indie aesthetic inherited from late 80’s art rock band Slint to create a unique blend that critics have dubbed, for lack of a better term, “post-rock.”

With their fourth LP, Standards, they have both refined and expanded upon their signature sound. The album opener, “Seneca,” starts with two minutes of sparse guitars, tumbling drums, and cymbal crashes before the group sets down a loose-limbed hip-hop rhythm, over which Jeff Parker executes a wiry guitar pattern. Other sounds and instruments — some natural, some manipulated by McEntire’s ace production chops — shift in and out of the mix over the remainder of the track’s six and a half minutes. By the time the song fades into the next one, Tortoise have just summed up their entire musical ethos in one track.

So what’s left for them to do on the rest of the album? Plenty. “Benway” starts with a slick, synthesized section that has McEntire’s distinctive touch all over it, before fading out to be replaced by an upbeat and lively jazz section reminiscent of former Tortoise bassist David Pajo’s work as Aerial M.

The band also proves that they are unsurpassed at setting a mood and developing it within an individual composition. “Firefly” is an ambient piece with Parker’s understated guitar flourishes as its centerpiece, while “Six Pack” has a lovely islands flair with its tinkling percussion and slow, shimmering guitarwork. The breezy, Sea & Cake-inspired “Monica” is equally impressive, ending with two minutes of spastic drumming accented by Bitney’s baritone sax riffing.

Actually, it’s hard not to point out the Sea & Cake connection in a lot of these songs; after all, McEntire is a key component of both groups, and his subtle production tweaking is as visible here as it was on his other band’s 1997 masterpiece The Fawn. The soaring “Blackjack,” for instance, with its driving beat, lovely melody, and lots of percussive noises made by vibes, cymbals, and a healthy smattering of studio wizardry, is the most outright poppy song here — if a five-piece improvisational combo with no singer can ever be described as “pop.”

Standards does slump slightly at times, such as on the overly-synthesized first part of “Eros,” which is marred by an incessant high-pitched snare hit. But as the band builds upon this section and ditches the computer effects, the song becomes a sublime jazz workout. Thankfully, the rest of the disc avoids such pitfalls outright.

Tortoise could possibly be the band of the new millennium. It may seem like a stretch to peg them as musical saviors, but given the sad state of music in 2001 — and here I’m talking about you, Britney — the temptation to go looking for the next great thing is certainly understandable. And if you’re looking for a savior, you really can’t go wrong with Tortoise. Not because they’re perfect — who is? — but because with each album they’ve stretched the boundaries of music, pushing themselves to constantly do something new. The important thing is, you’ll undoubtedly still be addicted to this album long after you’ve first heard it, which is more than can be said about most bands these days.

Archived article by Ed Howard