Tortoise has been called post-rock heroes and the leaders of the new age of experimental underground music. Underground musical innovators of the rock world on the other hand, are celebrated by a small number of fans and then remain forever in the shadows of popular music. Popular music continues to “evolve,” for lack of a better word, without knowledge of the underground.

Paul Wong
Courtesy of W.W. Norton

On Standards, Tortoise have created a synthesis of the past 50 years of music and constructed a cohesive laboratory soundtrack. So much so that listening to the band”s new album is a confusing task.

There is a combination of entirely new sounds with familiar melodies. Tracks that change direction without hesitation with an album that flows from track to track so well that you can pass from the beginning to the end without knowing that the album is divided into ten songs.

And that is one of the intriguing things about Tortoise. Their music works just as well as absent-minded background music as it does as an intense intellectual experiment into the history and meaning of music.

The Chicago-based Tortoise are no strangers to innovation. Their 1994 debut, self-titled album consisted of three basses, no guitars, and no vocals, something they have never used.

Their second album showed their use of the studio as a member of the band as they completely reworked the songs from their first album. 1998 saw the release of TNT and then the band toured relentlessly throughout the world. Well, they also recorded and performed with their other bands, worked on soundtrack projects, produced albums, and built studios. Somehow, they found time to create Standards.

The album title is the first indication of what the album is about. Standards is an album of a new style of standards. It is an album that is more jazz than rock, more ambient-dance than jazz, yet more structured than ambient.

The opening track “Seneca” opens with almost two minutes of feedback heavy, end-of-the-concert-chaos, and then breaks into the most compelling groove of the album. The fast paced, spooked out, instrumental riff is played over a electro-Bonham drum part and a sampling of weird sounds.

“Monica” offers an entirely different picture. Here the band dabbles in motown gone hip-hop. Other songs sound like a collision between Coltrane and Debussy.

Whatever Tortoise is doing on Standards, they are one of the only rock bands to use electronic capabilities to the advantage of experimentation without becoming obsessed with repetitive looping and an electronic sound. But then I guess that”s why they are not a rock band.

Grade: A-

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