Reviewed by Bill Mithoefer
Monday, March 19 2001, 3:00 PM
Perhaps Tortoise have finally realized the musical experiment that their first three albums laid the groundwork for. If the sound of their fourth full length, Standards is any indication, so is the abstract commentary of the album's packaging - a broken up American flag, replete with cryptic liner notes which read like computer programming code from a Unix manual: "Waihopai : ISm : SAPM : ASU : SAO : Vega : JICS : RSPa : ISS : JDF : V : RSO : SSL : Mayfly : PGP : 1 Seneca : trinkwasser : SALDV : PEM : resta : MSNBQ : bet : 3B2"
Say what? That's exactly what I thought. That is, until I began to listen to the record. Combinations of live instrumentation, samples, and loops swirl into a miasmia of genre-defying sounds. What am I listening to now? British drum and bass with an Afro-pop guitar line? A bass imitating a guitar together with a baritone sax playing a dub reggae overlay? A recording of Joy Division's drummer keeping the beat to a guitar playing the melody from what sounds like a 1960s Italian film soundtrack, doubled with a vibraphone? And yet, regardless of how chaotic and seemingly out of place all of these combined musical styles are, they blend together so well that one could almost swear they'd been programmed by the likes of Hal, the super-intelligent computer in Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
At the very least, Tortoise's deliberate pastiche of radically distinct genres - not only on one album, but also within the space of one song - bespeaks a certain kind of respectful inclusivity, almost as though they were trying to conjure up images of a more representative democracy through rock. Hence the signficance of the album's title: Standards. Although it may conjure up a typical vintage jazz or lounge assemblage of a 'standard' repertoire, in this case Tortoise are doing something different. The cultural synthesis that is this record's music - both counter-cultural and multicultural- becomes the new 'Standard,' and as such becomes a distinctly political act, as musical styles are brought together in completely counter-intuitive ways, almost as though they were metaphors for communities finding common ground in each other's distinct harmonies.
Yes, such sixties-style mixed musical messages rub shoulders with many contemporary stylistic pop-art fusions, (world beat, sitars and breakbeats, dancehall rhyming with folk music arrangements etc...) particularly in an age when we're supposed to be going global. But Standard's emphasis on synthesis rather than diversity is in its own way a critique of that superficial sense of cultural integration. Hence the broken up American flag on the cover, as though it were visually bemoaning the fragmentation of our inner national cultures that Tortoise's music strives to overcome. Its that inner-American commentary that makes this record's take on the matter really stand out.
In the technical miasma of these times, with computer programmers jabbering endlessly and often unintelligibly about PGP, RSP, SSL, DSL, etc., and a ceaseless stream of information at our fingertips, Tortoise has managed to create a positively beautiful record which sublimates some of this modern language into a product of products, a critique that engages while it disappears.
Standards is available from Thrill Jockey records