Tortoise : Standards

Masters of The Process, lords of composition, their human touch extends to the pressure of flesh upon strings and keys....

Heard the one about Tortoise? No, neither has anyone else. Masters of The Process, lords of composition, their human touch extends to the pressure of flesh upon strings and keys. Their immense influence, radiating from their Chicago base over the past seven years, must seem to them like some kind of freakish default: for a band who operate in a such a rarefied atmosphere of jazz, electronica and experimental latitude, who make Radiohead look like desperate [I]Popstars [/I]wannabes, their exalted status – even, gasp, among people who have never heard of, hmm, Morton Feldman – must come as something of a surprise.

After 1998’s ‘TNT’, an almost completely opaque world of synthesised sounds and soma-smooth grooves, it seemed like a fair bet that John McEntire and his Syncopated Swingers would disappear even further into the ether.

Interestingly, ‘Standards’, their first release on the famously cold-blooded Warp label, lets a little animal heat seep through the pristine grooves. As opposed to ‘TNT’ where the studio was used as “a compositional tool”, here, it’s used as enhancement, and all that organic rehearsal time seems to have taken hold. Starting with ‘Seneca’,

an effervescent squall that sounds

like ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ remodelled for some new Utopian Republic, and ending with ‘Speakeasy’,a beautiful theme for a city street it’s surprisingly gentle, allowing the emotional context of a soundtrack or accompaniment rather than the vacuum-packed, controlled conditions art of their last album.

Occasionally, they spin too far in this new direction: the fact that Tortoise sound like an alien dialect, entirely otherworldly and wholly unsettling, has always been much of their unique appeal. Here, there are moments when they sound all too recognisable: ‘Blackjack’, a fondant High Llamas confection; the noir twang of ‘Firefly’; ‘Benway’ twisting on the Paradinas-Aphex axis. At these times, you wonder why they have chosen play with such sturdy tropes, even in passing: it’s like Stephen Hawking doing that physics experiment with springs and a clamp stand. Yet the glitch-and-gamelan funk of ‘Eros’ and the coralled, Atlantian bubble of ‘Six Pack’ show their true power, their ability to sound like Eric Von Danniken [I]übermenschen[/I] with an excellent understanding of geometry and a hell of a record collection. ‘Standards’ might suggest that, finally, the world is catching up with then, but you know who wins the race.

Victoria Segal