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Tortoise: Standards

AAJ Staff By

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Tortoise: Standards With its '94 self-titled release, Chicago's wunderband Tortoise carved out a comfortable niche for the genre now known as post-rock. In the intervening years, other groups have borrowed from Tortoise's seminal ideas, but precious few have managed to get it right. Several sides later, Tortoise is still redefining the magic.

The title of Standards might suggest a misleading double entendre to jazz fans, so don't go into the disc expecting to hear tunes like "Autumn Leaves" or "Nardis." The unstated assertion (with plenty of evidence presented) is that these pieces will become the standards for the new millenium. Regardless of orientation, listeners curious about the intersection of improvisation with electronic production will find ample evidence on Standards.

The basic concept behind Tortoise, originally masterminded by studio wizard John McEntire, is to take live improvisation as the foundation for constructing a textural sound collage in the studio. On Standards, the group refines this idea in a fresh and inspired collaboration. While "clean" sounds tend to predominate in lead positions, a lot of the action in the rhythm department bears evidence of manipulation. You won't find any sterile drum machine hits, but instead full-bodied "live" sounding blocks pulled together to overwhelm and defeat the simplicity of 4/4 rhythm. During production, sounds originally generated by keyboard, bass, and drums undergo a careful process of recombination, reprocessing, and recontextualization.

The mellow groove that results can support a polyrhythmic whole—with or without a explicitly stated melody on top. When a distinct melody does appear, it often plays a role akin to the typical jazz melody over standard changes. Through the process of improvisation, the players interconnect different segments, introduce occasional tidbits of dissonance, and in the process accentuate the "live"-ness of the record.

For new Tortoise initiates, Standards can serve as a fine starting point. (Logic might dictate going for the debut disc Tortoise first, but each of these fully-assembled units functions perfectly well on its own.) More experienced post-rock listeners will find the new disc a fine complement to the ever-expanding Tortoise oeuvre: more detailed, cleverly assembled, and mystically subtle than earlier material.


Track Listing: Seneca; Eros; Benway; Firefly; Six Pack; Eden 2; Monica; Blackjack; Eden 1; Speakeasy.

Personnel: Doug McCombs; Johnny (Machine) Herndon; John McEntire; Dan Bitney; Jeff Parker; Casey Rice.

Year Released: 2004 | Record Label: Thrill Jockey | Style: Fringes of Jazz


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