The tunes on Standards are direct and immediate, yet they maintain the exploratory edge that has always characterized the group's output. The fusion of instrumental sounds (electric, acoustic, and synthesized) is subtle and subversive. Similarly, the group's fluency within the studio environment gives the finished work a quality that alternates between artifice and reality. Whilst TNT was constructed in the studio using segments recorded, improvised or altered electronically, the Standards sessions began after a period of rehearsal and composition. The contrast, simply stated, is that the studio was used extensively as a compositional tool for TNT, whereas with Standards it was used predominantly as tool to realize and enhance the existing new compositions. The studio does not impose itself on the recording to the same degree we witnessed on TNT, and the resulting record is in many ways reminiscent of their unadorned self-titled debut.
Tortoise formed in Chicago in the early 1990s from a pool of musicians most of whom had spent time in bands concerned with aggressive, guitar-centric rock. From the outset their aesthetic was crafted partly in opposition to that. Relying mostly on drums, vibraphone, two basses, keyboards, sparing use of guitar, and being attuned to the many strains of electronic dance music that developed throughout the decade, the ensemble quickly established a distinctive sound that caught a lot of people's attention. But it was a couple of years before their compositional skills caught up with their sonic inventiveness. John McEntire's crucial role in shaping the sound of the last couple of Stereolab records has been mirrored on his own group's records, and by the time TNT
was released, they'd put all the pieces together to create a record that lived up to their reputation. And Standards
is at least as good if not better. Having made their declaration of independence from rock, the roiling drums and guitar distortion at the start of "Seneca" are as near a return to it as they've made. However, after a couple of minutes they settle into a funky groove with half a dozen short interlocking melodies, and it eventually dissolves into a percussive wash and segues into "Eros," which starts with one of Dan Bitney and John Herndon's signature Steve Reich-ian mallet instrument patterns. There's an effective compositional tension throughout in which particularly abstract electronic passages will suddenly yield to surprisingly pretty melodies before heading back out to space. Those who've followed the band this far are going to be very happy, and anyone who has been hesitant would do well to take the plunge. --Bob Bannister