Originally published in The Montclarion March 15, 2001
If Tortoise’s first records were experiments in atmosphere, collage or dimension, “Standards,” their follow-up to 1998’s “TNT,” is a document in density. Far from abandoning their stylized avant-jazz sound, Tortoise has pushed the envelope even further, churning out ten songs that are among their most refined and layered to date.
The one thing that keeps the material on “Standards” from being the band’s best, though, might be the somewhat-unstated drive to constantly expand and break new sonic ground. It’s a drive that has produced ambitious and surreal soundscapes for the band in the past but, when pursued too vehemently, it’s a snarling dog that bites back.
More than many of their contemporaries, Tortoise have managed to tow the line between invention and inaccessibility, writing definition-defying music that seems true to their various directions and aspirations.
Born and bred in Chicago, Tortoise’s early work was inviting and organic, a mind-bending mix of jazz and indie rock that incorporated significant elements of R&B, blues, funk, world music, avant-garde sound constructions and soft-spoken electronica.
After their self-titled 1994 debut, the band reinvented the wheel and successive works – most notably 1996’s “Millions Now Living Will Never Die” and that record’s lynchpin, the breathtaking, 21-minute “Djed” – were fit more for turntables than the dark corners of smoke-filled jazz lounges.
“Standards” strives to be an acknowledgement of their heralded jazz dynamics as much as an homage to their more recent ambient and electronic work.
When it works – and it often does – the result is impressive. “Seneca,” the opening song, is driven by incredible grooves on drums and percussion and bass lines that resonate up and down the contours of your spine. The perfectly timed addition of hand-claps and organ give the song a colorful and sometimes-edgy quality.
“Six Pack” is a playful romp between bass and guitar that calls to mind the band’s “Spiderwebbed,” a study in expansion from their first record that slithered along courtesy of two weaving and interlocking bass lines.
The jazzy “Blackjack” is early Frank Zappa filtered through a 21st century mixing board, a saturated mix of bass, xylophone, organ, and a guitar that sounds, at times, like it’s being played underwater.
“Standards” doesn’t just revel, though, in how unique or how clever it often sounds. Tortoise’s early work was often propelled forward by the space and depth between the notes, and while the new set of songs can sometimes be incredibly dense and full, the band still captures silence in all the right places.
“Firefly” contains the sound of a guitar lost and sadly wandering through a tunnel. The haunting “Eros” sounds as foreign and distant as the surface of the moon, a field of converging sounds pockmarked with electronic bleeps, sonar murmurs and interjections from wind chimes and xylophones.
There are sadly no compositions here that rival the epic scope and vision of “Djed” or the highly emotive bridges written when Bundy K. Brown and David Pajo were still with the band, but that might speak more for the band’s endearing legacy than the merits of their latest work.
A project of intense precision, invention and craft, “Standards” may not be the band’s defining moment or a pinnacle of experimentation but it is stunning and accomplished nonetheless, a document in the growth and experimentation of one of this young century’s more ambitious ensembles.