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In the current issue of the British music monthly the Wire, critic David Keenan does his best to politicize Tortoise’s new album, Standards, and its cover art, a deconstructed American flag. “The timing of Standards,” he writes, “couldn’t be more appropriate: in the wake of the American election it inevitably hits like a bomb.”
Founding Tortoise members Doug McCombs and Johnny Herndon even talk politics in the story, the latter ranting about Bush and Gore and the unexpectedly pertinent choice of a “fucked American flag” for Standards’ cover. “It’s a bizarre chain of events that we weren’t planning on,” Herndon says, “but it seems really appropriate at this pointlike what are the fuckin’ standards here?”
Denying Tortoise’s armchair-leftist leanings would be like denying my own, but the guys in Tortoise, to my ears, play apoliticaleven politeinstrumental rock. And Standards’ track titles reveal nothing: “Seneca,” named after either the first-century Roman philosopher or the Native American tribe, is the only one that seems to reference something other than whatever popped out of a band member’s mouth during mix-down. If you can find politics in titles such as “Eros,” “Benway,” “Firefly,” “Six Pack,” “Eden 1” and “Eden 2,” you must be British. (Reading too much meaning into a Tortoise title isn’t new, however: 1996’s “Djed” was creatively interpreted as a verb”DJed”rather than as a noun, because the track’s 21 minutes are a computer-edited composite of various recording sessions and sound effects strung together like a DJ’s live mix.)
“Seneca” begins Standards on a noisy note: Overdriven guitars and basses crash into tape-overloading drums and cymbals. Noisy, of course, doesn’t equal political, but because the Sonny Sharrock-inspired “Seneca” is the most aggressive track Tortoise has recorded since its 1994 self-titled debut, the tune is being interpreted as an angry statement of some sort. But even “Seneca”‘s noisiness is a momentary blast: The track eventually turns into the sort of clean, regimented groove that is Tortoise’s specialty. The rest of Standards follows the low-key, art-film-soundtracky, percussion-, bass-, and vibes-driven sound of 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die and 1998’s TNT, although there are far fewer post-production cut-and-paste treatments on the new record.
The then-exotic soundscaping on Millions Now Living influenced innumerable indie-rock bands to experiment with improvised sound and computer editing, and it still stands as a touchstone of the genre, even if the sprawling, mysterious TNT is the most impressive display of Tortoise’s (more specifically, drummer/producer John McEntire’s) studio mastery. Neither album is political, although one TNT track title”In Sarah, Mencken, Christ, and Beethoven There Were Women and Men”has probably inspired a fair number of dorm-room debates.
For Standards, Tortoise made a point of breaking with the sound-collage technique of TNT, testing the new album’s compositions at various secret gigs in the band’s Chicago base under the name Woodcult before heading into the studio. And at least three of Tortoise’s five members played together live in the studio while laying down Standards’ foundations. TNT, by contrast, was conceived and birthed in the studio, piece by sampled piecethe band members later had to teach themselves the songs from CDs so they could play them live.
Even though composition trumps process on Standards, the album often sounds like a continuation of TNT rather than a radical departure. Tortoise’s members play in a variety of Chicago bands, including the experimental-funk Isotope 217, the electro-pop the Sea and Cake, the free-jazz New Horizons Ensemble, the soundscape-rock Brokeback, and the post-bop Chicago Underground Trio. Although all of those extracurricular experiences are in play on Standards, they add up to little more than exercises in ambient soundtracking.
“Eros” and “Eden 2” are skittering funk tracks that simmer more than they burna common problem in this age of post-electronica groove, in which rigid robotic pulses are more influential than stanky James Brown beats. The lilting dubs of “Benway” and “Monica” suffer from similarly indifferent grooves; it’s music for the terminally complacent.
Guitarist Jeff Parker, who joined the band with TNT, gives “Firefly” an ominous, dirty edge that the rest of Standards is missing. But even his contribution can’t stop the album from too often falling into somnolence. His playing in the Chicago Underground Trio and the New Horizons Ensemble is a distinctive mix of fractured post-bop harmonies and effects-garbled single-note runs; here, his fretwork sounds buried, and it too often blends into Tortoise’s tight ensemble-based grooves.
Other Standards cuts just sound very much like the well-mannered, almost numbing hypnogrooves Stereolab has churned out with increasing indifference over the past few years. “Six Pack,” “Blackjack,” and “Eden 1” are incredibly Stereolab-like. Or is that Tortoise-like? After all, McEntire helped produce Stereolab’s last three records, and both bands draw from the same panoply of musical influencesSteve Reich’s minimalism, Can’s motorik rock, King Tubby’s experimental dub. Although Stereolab and Tortoise profess to share political views as well, only the former makes its politics obvious, matching its music to sociocritical Marxist lyrics.
Both Stereolab and Tortoise are more successful as exotic rock-song auteurs than as soundtrackers for the revolution. But even without its political pretensions, Tortoise’s new album would barely live up to the band’s own standards. CP