Tortoise: Standards

NZ Listener

STANDARDS, Tortoise (Thrill Jockey)

In a group as independent and self-styled as Chicago-based Tortoise every gesture is deliberate, from the kick drum to the cover art. The sleeve of Standards, their fourth and latest album, shows a disfigured American flag, chopped up and roughly reassembled, viewed through what might be the flickering lines of a video screen. The song titles and names of musicians are concealed amongst what appears to be a printout of military data. (To a New Zealander, the names ‘ANZUS’ and ‘Waihopai’ leap out). In the opening track they unleash a fusillade of guitar and drums that immediately recalls Jimi Hendrix’s resetting of “The Star-Spangled Banner”. It’s an anthem of sorts, and an apt one for a group that not only asks questions about the society it belongs to, but continually explores and redefines the terms of its own existence.

Standards is as political a statement as any band has made in recent memory, and in the wake of the latest US election has particular potency. So it might be surprising that the music inside this package contains no rhetoric whatsoever. This is not Rage Against The Machine. In fact the music of Tortoise is comprised entirely of instrumentals, and these do their work mostly by stealth rather than dropping the sonic motherlode.

When describing Tortoise there’s an overwhelming temptation to use the j-word. Their line-up, with its three percussionists augmenting an electric rhythm section, could be that of some post-Miles fusion band. Their prominent use of vibraphones and marimbas brings to mind the Modern Jazz Quartet or, at a stretch, Frank Zappa. Not beholden to the dancefloor pulse, they slip in and out of odd time signatures as easily as breathing. What’s more, for all the sonic layering, there’s an essential lightness, a skip and bounce, which underlies Tortoise’s music. In short, they swing.

Although Tortoise have arrived at something that resembles jazz at many points, they didn’t get there by the traditional route. The quintet emerged in Chicago in the early 90s from the remnants of such significant post-punk and hardcore bands as Eleventh Dream Day, Gastr Del Sol, the Poster Children, and Slint. The only member with anything resembling a jazz background is guitarist Jeff Parker. Founder and nominal leader John McEntire studied electronic music, while the rest cite as their common influences such legendary volume dealers as Sonic Youth and Big Black.

And on close analysis one finds little of the single element common to jazz: improvisation. Tortoise are composers as much as players, and while a couple of the ten cuts on Standards stretch over the six-minute mark there is an emphasis on form and structure here that relates more closely to rock. You may not find choruses and middle-eights, but you will hear hooks, riffs and melodies as insistent as any rock song. Soloing is almost nonexistent; the nearest they come to that is in the funky “Eros”, where a spidery clavinet trades bars with a scratchy synthesiser. Mostly the emphasis is on ensemble effect, the repetitive parts meshing together like cogs of an engine.

The title conspires with the music and design to complete what amounts to a multi-media statement. There’s the broken flag on the front, suggesting the dismantling of political standards, the image of nationhood reduced to a parody. It’s also a jazz joke. After all, these aren’t ‘standards’, of the type that fill a jazz band’s fakebook, but a bunch of fresh originals. But ultimately, the standards under discussion here are Tortoise’s own, for which this challenging yet vastly musical album sets a new high.

NZ Listener, June 23 2001

Tags: jazzmath rocktortoiseinstrumental

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