My introduction to Tortoise came to me in 1995 by a recovering alcoholic--someone that I didn't really know playing music I didn't really understand. For me, the opinion of "No, thank you. I do not like New Age Jazz," was nearly set in stone right then and there. But my view of this group "Tortoise" quickly changed when the recovering alcoholic informed me "David Pajo from Slint is in this band."
What this meant was that this "new age jazz,"--this noodling guitar mixed with electronic samples and beats used in a manner I had never heard prior to this--was not something that should be written off so quickly. Anyone around during the inception of Slint would have seen fans of their prior bands practically booing them off the stage, only to exalt them as Pioneers in Underground Music 10 years later. And it would take someone as bold as Pajo to continue this process all over again.
And sure enough, over six years later, you can't open a rock magazine this month without finding a stellar review of the new Tortoise album, Standards. You can be sure that the more mainstream press will overlook Tortoise's rank as forerunner of the genre, but then again, why should they care? The underground is a better place because of the new territory they opened up. Who knows why so many soft, vibraphone-wielding instrumental groups have risen to acceptance in the last four years? It is not the concern of the listener.
Standards would still be a great album if it had been created by a group of suburban kids that had just discovered Thrill Jockey Records. Of course, it would lack the musicianship of these music school grads and their signature sounds: the unmistakable, jazz-tinkering guitar; John McEntire and his entirely danceable veteran beats cutting through the beautiful mess of samples, flawless bass, and of course, that vibraphone. And of course, the first question about Standards would be "Is it better than TNT?"(The lengthy, ProTools-based scratchpad of ideas that, for fans of 1996's classic millions now living will never die, was not high on the listenability scale.)
Off the computer and back into McEntire's studio, Standards produces a warmer, dare I say more upbeat feel than TNT. It also seems as if close attention was paid to eliminating excess. The drawn-out, ambient lead in/out sections always justify the means, making for a tighter, higher-quality album.
Standards is not a product of anyone other than the masters of the genre. Though it may be getting more difficult to separate the originators of this "new age jazz" sound from the barrage of imitators, inevitably, you will be less satisfied by the latter. Tortoise continues to prove their musical importance and satisfy listeners all across the board--an act that is rarely achieved. JOE FAUSTIN KELLY
March 6 New Releases:
Steve Almaas, Amy Ray, Big in Japan, Blake Babies, C-Average, Cash Audio, Robert Creeley, Phil Crumar, Cut La Roc, Danielson Famile, Econoline Crush, Fabulous Disaster, Free Design, Steve Fisk, The Go, Gwenmars, Kristin Hersh, Kings of Convenience, Kraftwerk, Lenola, Lupine Howl, Loren MazzaCane Connors, My Morning Jacket, Pixies, Rocket From the Crypt, Scannerfunk, Tipsy, George Usher Group