The shell game

Between 1994's Tortoise, 1996's "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" and 1998's TNT, Tortoise remade instrumental improv-rock in their image: a jittery, fleshy American sound that borrowed from samba, dub, art metal, post-bop, tango, no wave and Afro-avant jazz cut 'n' pasted at whim. But, as witnessed by "Standards" (on Thrill Jockey, of course) -- their bluntest work yet, released last February -- full-blooded compositions are stripped bare and made real in a "live" direct context. The band's multitextural mutt of yore has given way to an elegant melodicism bent by an improvisational largesse unrealized since Chi-town forefathers the Art Ensemble of Chicago wound their way through the Afro-avant-tribal-jazz of "Nice Guys" (1978).

The wealth of sonic diversity that Tortoise's John McEntire, Dan Bitney, Jeff Parker, Doug McCombs and John Herndon bring to "music" -- items that sound like song but feel like sculpture -- may grow more daunting with each project as well as solo offshoots like Parker/ Herndon/Bitney's Isotope 217, McCombs' Brokeback, McEntire's production of Stereolab, and so on. But let us not bore each other with tags like "neo," "prog" or "post" as most critics do. With the deceptively straight-ahead release "Standards," Tortoise is no longer "post" anything.

Remember when David Lynch broke cinematic barriers with the disturbing dream world that was "Blue Velvet"? All that came after, everything that was noir and wakingly nightmarish, became "Lynch-like." Tortoise is simply "Tortoisian." (I know it's bad, sue me.)

"'Standards' was definitely an effort to make something immediately visceral in a way -- just more upfront, for lack of a better word," says bassist/lap steeler McCombs of the "shorter songs that got to the point sooner with a denser sonic vocabulary."

He speaks of louder guitars and interactive drum sounds ("without trying to sound too extreme") the way a chef would use cinnamon, as a sparingly used spice that eventually awes one's senses. And "Standards" is spicy, a mixed bag of musics referencing (to my ears) odd juxtapositions in searing new contexts. Example: "Seneca" first sounds like the rumble of drummer Elvin Jones as applied to the fractal thrash of King Crimson, then like Yes' Steve Howe riffing through Egyptian reggae.

"That was two separate ideas fused together," says guitar/percussionist McEntire proudly of a melody flying freely with the group flowing close behind. "Maybe they shouldn't have been," he laughs. "But it's certainly a track that benefited from a live recording, especially the distortion element."

The quaintly winding "Blackjack" could be an outage from Zipper's chamber-classical "Studio Tan" ("It sounds like The Beach Boys to me," says McCombs). "Benway" feels like Eno's "Another Green World" through the eyes of Raymond Scott; "Firefly" like Ennio Morriocone scoring a film with a rubber band.

Elsewhere there are smells as strong as Can, Gap Band, Roger, Pat Metheny and Steve Reich, all guided by the density that McCombs spoke of, a clotted creaminess best applied to Tortoise's rhythmic interplay. But what's most daunting about "Standards" is how much this record rocks and rocks hard.

"I always thought we were a rock band, not really anything ‘post,'" says McEntire referring to the abrupt force of Parker's guitars as heard on "Seneca" and "Speakeasy" or the crisp, almost-always-recognizable sound of Bitney's rolling marimbas.

"Everyone's played in loud rock bands, but we had never really explored that sound within the context of Tortoise," adds the guitar-playing Parker. "You know, heavier, harder more distorted tones? We wanted to make a more punk-rock record. Shorter songs. More concise."

Still, "Standards" is hardly organic. Though it may seem less processed, "Standards'" tones are filtered, digitally edited and screwed with as radically as ever. Plus sometimes performing silly solo outings like Isotope 217's "Who Stole the Walk-man?" made Tortoise, in Parker's opinion, a little more confident in exposing a sense of humor to the public. Parker's presence on "Standards" is more fully realized that on previous efforts: his harmonies purer, his fractal fingerings more dynamic -- dare I say lustier. "I made a conscious effort to limit my contributions to just guitar and a little bass," says Parker. "My parts are a lot more linear in nature, less chords and shit, more melodic."

"Standards" began taking shape in March 2000 after each member had completed solos and the group itself ended a tour as unbilled backing behind Tropicalista Tom Ze. "Dealing with the shifting rhythmic emphasis of Ze's sambas -- to say nothing of his energy and insight -- totally expanded my knowledge of poly-rhythms," says Parker. "It forced us to interact in a different way, and improved our musical aesthetic."

Juices flowing, Tortoise was then prepared to act on their liveness, to reflect the way the band physically and psychically melded. In that regard -- live-time recording -- "Standards" is their most democratic record. Not an easy task for such a busy collective of musicians. "Sometimes it's difficult to coordinate everyone's schedules, and sometimes I feel like things ultimately suffer because we can't commit enough time to certain things," admits Parker. "Luckily, good musicianship allows us to make the most of it."

That "most" is the new "Standards." With it, Tortoise has broken through scattered barriers and found a sound that envelops itself -- playing as one in real time and (for the most part) forging a new linearity based on maturity.

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