Holy Hell: ‘Standards’ is 20

A standard reveals a specified level of quality, and is used to measure or model, to compare, to connote. In musical terms, it’s a tune or composition of noted and established popularity – not poppy pablum but a strapping figure of sorts, a staple, the foundation of something seminal. In all of these forms and turns of the phrase, the Chicago post-rock ensemble Tortoise hit the nail square on the rusty head by christening its 2001 Thrill Jockey Records LP – the follow-up to 1998’s much-lauded TNT – as Standards.

The record, to say the least, came with massive and heightened expectations – and met them head-on. The group boldly announced its presence and sense of sonic grandness with 1994’s transformative self-titled debut, a collection of experimental but deeply felt mid-tempo post-rock cut through the filters of kraut-rock, Minimalism and jazz forms. (No less than Steve Albini called it one of the best LPs recorded in Chicago – ever.) The group, which Bastro-ite Bundy K. Brown left after the debut and was replaced with Slint alum David Pajo, then kept one-upping itself in the game of underground experimentation with classic outings like 1996’s Millions Now Living Will Never Die, and TNT. Noted jazz guitarist Jeff Parker later joined the fray. The rest, as the fella said, is history.

Fans of obtuse remix records and slinking live detours, Tortoise transfixed crowds and, on records like Standards, audiophiles, with its potent mix of two basses, and three percussionists switching between drums, vibraphone, marimba. And this was a band that wasn’t familiar with faltering. Standards really revealed them as continuing to operate in top form, producing a litany of tightly wound and occasionally lysergic, rhythmically driven funk-jazz fusions with all sorts of glitchy and well-recorded adornments. The record begins, though, not with the riveting post-rock vertigo of “Six Pack,” but, instead, with a blast of anthemic rock guitar that is anything but expected. (It also, somehow, fits with the multi-faceted American anthem theme announced on the record cover.) It’s only a matter of time, though, before John McEntire, the man behind the boards and the kit, launches into an addictive little jazzy shuffle, this one recorded crisp and dry, and the proceedings get off to a galloping start.

Standards displayed a lot of what was then Tortoise’s gorgeous repertoire of colors – densely composed art-jazz (the devilishly good “Blackjack”), avant tendencies with locked grooves and luscious, off-time hand-claps (“Seneca”), even cinematic gravitas (the nod to William S. Burroughs, “Benway”). While what seemed like early landmarks have acquired their own lives and narratives over time (we’re thinking mostly of the ingenious “Djed,” from Millions Now Living Will Never Die), the maddening ascents and descents on Standards still harbor the same photostatic charm, the same sonic bite they did when first released in 2001.

There are slight or lesser moments, of course. Tracks like the faux-forgettable Romanticism of “Monica” pass without registering on the Geiger very highly and the first half of closer “Speakeasy” doesn’t sway with the energy of the rest of the LP. (The closing half, though, is nothing short of iconic.) But these half-measures are few and far between, and more than made up for with the record’s uber-heights – namely, the urban-scope thrum of “Eden 2,” the rhythmic and back-biting percussive claptrap of “Eden 1” or the glassy marimba of “Eros.” When it comes to highlighting reels, Standards stuffs you like a Thanksgiving feast.

Sadly, Standards was Tortoise’s last great LP before 2016’s return-to-form The Catastrophist – it was a long 15-year chasm. 2004 brought the oddly-initiated It’s All Around You and the band waited five years before a successor, 2009’s Beacon of Ancestorship. With most of Tortoise’s members involved in other acts – Eleventh Dream Day, Brokeback, Isotope 217, their various solo efforts – the band has taken on a bit of a side project vibe since Standards. That’s a shame, both for historians of post-rock and for music aficionados who like their Cooder-influenced jazz-rock slinky. Looking back today, Standards bears all of the charm and features of an unexpected zenith. Tortoise already had three brilliant LPs under its belt before Standards but, with the 2001 LP, it hit a high note to which they didn’t return for years — though, thankfully, 2016 brought a reprise of the group’s greatness. Let’s all hope McEntire and company have more Standards up their collective sleeve. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, June 11, 2021


About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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