Wednesday, April 4, 2001

Setting the standard

Posted By on Wed, Apr 4, 2001 at 12:00 AM

Ignoring whatever expectations (critical, audience, enemy) have been draped upon it, on Standards, Tortoise continues ahead, making state-of-the-art sound. The group’s instrumental exercises in studio manipulation and contemporary band-think will continue to earn Tortoise its place in the underground. Just in case you’re worried, the “standards” have more to do with those that this band works by, than with “Autumn Leaves” or “Night and Day.”

Another title for this record could have been Contrasts, as there are a lot of ‘em here: ensemble/individual, rehearsal jam/postproduction manipulation, integration/ disintegration. There are times when the group disappears, leaving behind the remarkably crafted tones, like the playful funk percolations, drum samples and glass gamelan chimes of “Eros.” There are times when the spartan electronic production strains against in-the-red guitar overload, as on the closing “Speakeasy.” A track such as “Eden 2” combines levee-breaker rhythms with overlaid jazz flourishes, both of which seem several teeth shy of closing up. And there are times when the electro-minimal beats cross-fade back into Tortoise’s trademark ensemble interplay. Through it all, the band maintains an ultramodern approach to sound, even while implementing ideas learned from ’70s dub studio techniques and fusion’s explorations of arcane jazz-rock meetings. Another nice ’70s holdover element is that Standards is an excellent headphone listen.

Has there been a non-hip-hop act lately that has been the object of more derision by people who think they know what it’s all about than Tortoise? From Tortoise’s initial anointing as post-rock progenitors, the group members have been accused of being fusionoid ‘70s retreads, trendy math-rock scientists exorcising their obsessions through dub sessions. It doesn’t help the Tortoise case that a lot of bland, stereotype-fulfilling acts have followed in its wake. As for would-be copyists, they ought to follow Yogi Berra’s advice: “If you can’t imitate him, don’t copy him.” As the titans in their field, the members of Tortoise make easy targets for critical scrutiny, as well as incriminating stereotypes from would-be members of their audience. But their standards aren’t mine, or yours, or Simon fucking Reynolds’. They’re Tortoise’s, and as this recording evidences, they’ll continue to abide by those standards as they create. They’ll continue to set standards, too. Give their smooth track “Monica” to Jeff Mills or Carl Craig for a remix and get these guys down to Hart Plaza for the DEMF already.

E-mail Greg Baise at


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