Tortoise – Standards

4 out of 5

Label: Thrill Jockey

Produced by: John McEntire

Tortoise’s fourth album, Standards, was the first that I bought as it came out – after picking up or getting familiar with their back catalogue to that point – and rather solidified my opinion on the band, for better (the album’s opening half or so) or relative worse (…the rest of it). Standards is an experience, but not always an immersive one; it’s an amazing accomplishment, but not always the most amazing album. And that’s Tortoise: having played both sides of the minimalist organic / maximalist electronic post-rock sounds with their debut and TNT, respectively, Standards is a wink at its title, and a wink at the chopped-up American flag cover art: Tortoise start to play what they know, pulling from various eras and styles and re-stitching it rather seamlessly together, resulting in a template for the band’s sound going forward that’s equal parts familiar and new; challenging and… not lazy by any means, but casual.

This can all be well represented by album bookends Seneca and Speakeasy, the former starting off with an explosion of distorted guitar that moves into the most unbelievably slick mash-up of funky bass and soothing keys and post-rock angularity; the latter is a splash of easy-going jazz and elevator music softness. The approach feels very purposeful, barreling out of the gate with a bravado of mashed-up loud and quiet that Tortoise have perfected across the previous discs, and winding down to more spread out, potentially indulgent – but never not enjoyable – works. And inbetween it bops and quirks, sometimes fitful but never quite overt; John McEntire’s warm, rounded production makes it all a bit fuzzy but not dim, though this former descriptor is the one reason I tend to tune out as things go along, because the more the group calms down and spreads out – hinted at early on, with Benway downshifting several times – the more it starts to blend together, especially with musical themes reworked / reused throughout, and some songs towards the middle (Six Pack, Eden 2) seeming more like sketches than full-on tracks.

But that’s the new standard, as outlined by the band: wholly comfortable in what they can do and doing it on their own time, focusing on in-studio jamming but not above whipping out some jittery cut-up tricks here and there, and delivering a powerhouse, timeless album that someone encompasses their whole career, forward and backward, without stepping on any of their other discs. Most Tortoise discs are of a very specific mood for me; Standards is good at any time, any era, sidling in alongside works of post-rock peers (and showing them up with a friendly smile) new and old.