By: Eric Greenwood
On its fourth album, Tortoise seems content to buy into the hype that it is, in fact, the pioneering band that fawning critics purport it to be. On the band's last album, TNT, it used the old "studio as an instrument" trick to explain away the utter lifelessness of what was inherently just a batch of aimless hokum. While the idea of using studio editing to create songs may look "experimental" on paper, I can assure you it's no fun to listen to. Plus, Stereolab already popped that cherry on Dots And Loops (ironically, with the help of John McEntire) and still managed to retain some semblance of melody, warmth, and humanity.
With Standards Tortoise tries to pump some blood back into it's stiffening system but unfortunately comes across even more detached and pompous. The free-jazz fakery that opens "Seneca" is as off-putting as the overly calculated layering of watery riffs and synthetics in its second half. It's so perfectly conceptualized that it's borderline unlistenable. There's absolutely no feeling outside of John McEntire's dynamic drumming. This is the opposite of punk. There's no risk; there's no stain- just perfectly executed light-jazz-rock fusion. No thanks.
"Eros" squishes and squirms its way through obligatory sound effects and an insincere funk bass groove. The only release from the monotony is a fluid bass loop that melds perfectly with McEntire's skittering syncopation. "Benway" plunders Brian Eno's Music For Airports for its atmospheric meandering, but then the song turns into a mathematic monster full of quirky changes that are too clever by half, exposing Tortoise as the band to blame for the unnecessary proliferation of the entire post-rock movement. Listening to Tortoise is like watching a musical experiment in a vacuum.
Pretentious posturing like "Firefly" serves no purpose other than to annoy the listener with half an idea milked to its extreme end. Just because it sounds like a Spaghetti Western doesn't mean its good. Having structure is not the same as being memorable. Ennio Morricone would not be proud. "Six Pack" has a jovial pop vibe similar to McEntire's other band, The Sea And Cake. There's a whiff of vitality in this song. The slumbering monster finally opens its eyes, but, alas, it bores itself so thoroughly that it can't help but fall back asleep.
A song like "Monica" seems pleasant enough at first with its Peter Frampton-style guitar-talking backed with heavy-dub percussion, but soon the trick wears thin as the plodding repetition begins to grate. Tortoise is not very good at sustaining emotions through its music. It can impress the listener easily with its riffs and sonic experimentation, but affecting the listener is a whole other matter. Once you learn how the magic trick works it's hard to fake surprise. "Blackjack" defies everything I've said so far. It's engaging and unusual in a movie score sort of way with its swirling keyboards, reverb-drenched guitar lines, and over-driven percussion, but one memorable song a good record does not make.
As a title "Standards" is consistent with the band's self-involved demeanor. I interpret it as an ironic take on the term "standards" (in reference to music) to mean "classic" or "traditional." Knock on wood that this music does not become the norm. What a nightmare. I'd rather watch paint dry. Post-rock is bad enough. For Tortoise to be considered the measuring stick by which we all gauge what is "classic" is a depressing thought. At least Britney Spears looks hot. What do you get from these guys? Pretty artwork and flawless noodling? I don't know about you, but I need more.