The title of Tortoise’s fourth album, Standards (Thrill Jockey), suggests that the Chicago-based instrumental group might be heading into jazz territory. Bassist Doug McCombs, speaking over the phone from the Windy City, agrees. Sort of. “We chose the title because it has a few different meanings. The jazz allusion being one of them, though it’s sort of a joke or a play on words — that these songs would become part of the canon of ‘standards’ is virtually impossible.”
It’s doubtful that Wynton Marsalis will ever interpret Tortoise’s Midwestern avant-rock, but Standards does find the group heading toward a more accessible straight-ahead sound. And the album could certainly become a touchstone and a benchmark for experimental-rock acts. With their homonymous 1994 debut and the subsequent Millions Now Living Will Never Die and TNT (all on Thrill Jockey), Tortoise redefined the context of indie rock in the post-Nirvana era by turning down, grooving on, and spacing out. Shunning vocals, solos, and pop-song forms, they opened the doors for a wave of dub-influenced and effects-laden rock. With their minimalist take on instrumental rock, the quintet have, like Phish (or the Grateful Dead) in the indie-rock world, attracted a fanatical fan base, inspired numerous imitators, jump-started trends, and sprouted countless side projects and collaborations.
Commissioning remixes and adopting a cut-and-paste recording approach snagged from dub producers, DJs, and German krautrock acts, Tortoise ushered indie-rock into the electronic era. Their previous album, 1998’s TNT, was their most processed and overtly “electronic”; its skittering rhythms and digital clicks signaled the beginning of what’s come to be known as “glitch rock” — headphone music in the experimental-techno vein. Indeed, Radiohead’s Kid A, in effect an atmospheric album without hooks, riffs, or choruses, is both very Tortoise-y and very much in the glitch-rock vein.
Yet however groundbreaking and influential it might have been, TNT found the group stretching too far outside the lines. Part of Tortoise’s appeal is that they make obscure, left-of-center music — classical minimalism, krautrock, ambient, free jazz — palatable to American rock audiences. But TNT’s abstract rhythms and diffuse compositions were just as cerebral and confounding as their obtuse influences.
Standards, on the other hand, is Tortoise’s most engaging and concise album to date. “In some ways,” McCombs remarks, “Standards was a reaction to TNT. We all felt like we achieved something on TNT, and we were all pretty proud of it. But there were some aspects of it that we wanted to dispense with for the time being. Mostly, those songs that take a really long time to develop and a long time to get to the point. . . . The main thing that we talked about before we started to make the new record was to make it more immediate-sounding.”
So the group spent a couple weeks rehearsing the material before they entered John McEntire’s Soma Studios, and they do sound much tighter: sonic atmospheres develop into riffs instead of dissolving in the ćther; marimbas lay down melody lines, not cyclical question marks; and the hooks are memorable and in some cases even catchy. Standards also marks Tortoise’s return to wood-and-string basics. Wiggly keyboards and Pro-tools trickery remain, but the disc boasts lots of real-time playing, and it begins with a roar of psychedelic guitars and thundering drums (“Seneca”) — a rock-and-roll signifier through and through.
The most obvious changes are in the contributions of drummer/producer John McEntire, who shuns the fussiness of TNT and embraces his inner groove child. He lays down chewy, white-boy funk that draws from slow-drip trip-hop (“Eden 2”), burbling Fela Kuti–style Afrobeat (“Six Pack”), and trashy garage funk (“Seneca”). The rest of the rhythm section perks up as well, supporting his caffeinated drum work with twisty Afro-poppy guitar patterns and subsonic bass throbs. And guitarist Jeff Parker’s impact on the Tortoise sound is growing: his angular postbop lines add jagged bursts of energy to “Benway” and drifting whole-tone abstractions to the urban-pastoral melodies of “Speakeasy.”
Despite the jazz touches, the funkified rhythms, and the tight(er) compositions, Standards is still very much in the post-rock vein. The recording studio continues to be the silent, sixth member of Tortoise: every track features aggressive signal processing, the acoustic sounds being twisted, clipped, and stretched. And the band remain more focused on gently shifting rhythm patterns, subtle tonal coloration, hypnotic vamps, and intricate arrangements than on jamming, noodling, or rocking — at least in the traditional sense. But for the first time, they’re making music that’s more than just experimental and admirable — it’s fun, too.