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Standards and Practices 

A Tortoise in the marketplace

Wednesday, Mar 14 2001
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”Look. Utilizing sources your audience doesn’t recognize so they‘ll think you concocted ’em yourself -- everybody does it. It‘s one of the ’principles‘ on which rock has always been based,“ explained the rockwriter Richard Meltzer in last year’s A Whore Just Like the Rest, an anthology of his music writings. Meltzer was discussing the work of Bruce Springsteen.

”I don‘t know when the Bruce Thing finally ended -- or whether it even has,“ Meltzer continued. ”But at this late date, the archaeologist in my soul (more than my mind) RECOILS at his mixing the ’50s and ‘60s for all the customers who missed, or missed the upshot of, either decade or both. What’s particularly offensive is not that Bruce equally weights the ‘50s and ’60s (nothing wrong there) but that he collapses them as if they‘re the same thing -- a twofer as phony, as specifically phony, as American Graffiti or Happy Days. The Fonz indeed! Not only were the two decades musically different but they were separate: no more continuous (nor contiguous) than Haiti and Australia.“

Excuse the extended steal -- what can I say, I’m paid by the word, and it‘s a matter of ”principle“ -- but Meltzer’s passage is a good one to recall in discussing Tortoise‘s new album, Standards. On their first three records, the fact that Tortoise repackaged the work of their own set of musical forefathers from the ’70s and ‘80s could not be disputed. Guitar lines evoked the spaghetti-Western film soundtracks of Ennio Morricone. Song structures were reminiscent of the endless, clanging soundscapes of ”out“ German bands like Neu, Faust and Can. Vibraphone patterns recalled the work of American composer Steve Reich. Their dubs echoed Lee ”Scratch“ Perry, their funk Herbie Hancock’s early electro. Instrument tones synthesized the Moog music of Dick Hyman, Walter Carlos, Jean Jacques Perrey and Gershon Kingsley. After each album, Tortoise further cemented their reputation as aggregators by seeking remixes from ‘90s ”intelligent“ dance and techno musicians such as Autechre and Derrick Carter. They then forged a blood tie with Slint, one of the first and best ”post-rock“ acts, when David Pajo, that group’s guitarist, joined the band for a spell in 1995.

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Should Tortoise be absolved of the sin Meltzer accused Springsteen of committing? If so, why? Just because there isn‘t the same quantity of gold records in them thar sounds? Keep in mind that Meltzer’s greatest complaint with Springsteen was not that he fucked with time, applying literary, Dylanesque lyrics to an instrumental backing as hot as the fire and brimstone in Jerry Lee Lewis‘ piano keys. What Meltzer couldn’t stand is that Springsteen gift-wrapped music of the heart in a smooth package, that Bruce intended to fulfill the increasingly commercial aspirations of ‘70s rock by turning history into a touring Broadway show. (”To slap the decades together as a two-in-one is EITHER mean, nasty, greedy MANIPULATION or irrefutable evidence that the Boss is verrrrrrrrry blind, stupid, OBTUSE,“ Meltzer wrote.) It wasn’t Bruce‘s cash that Meltzer minded, it was his moderation -- his crass, good-natured take on music previously rife with dirt and controversy, scandal and nasty double-entendres. Bruce took a music that was from and of the people and served it back as music for the people, handed down from on high -- music Ronald Reagan could open a speech with, music to sell cars to, whether Bruce liked those associations or not. (”And by not narrowing the gap between rock and its audience -- by playing everybody for an even bigger rube than himself -- he only WIDENS it. Ssss. Grrr.“)

A simple fact: Since their ’93 debut, Tortoise have convinced an ever-expanding fan base of the merits of their music and their predecessors‘. ”As seen in Vibe, Rolling Stone and Spin,“ read the original sticker on Standards’ front cover. ”Their music has been used in commercials, films and fashion shows,“ says the record‘s press release. Cha-ching!? Why yes, this is business.

What’s been most unclear about Tortoise was whether they were capable of creating their own riches or could only mine the past. In that respect, Standards marks a turning point for the band. Perhaps it‘s the time their drummer and producer, John McEntire, has spent producing the French-British-Australian band Stereolab -- that most postmodern of pop groups -- but Tortoise have finally integrated their influences and discovered how to do more than mimic, cast shadows from the days of yore.

Standards does more. It captures the big bang of rock, the intricacy of jazz, the subtlety and experimentation of minimal and electronic music, the grooves of dance and dub -- but all at once, and in a way that you can’t diagram like you could in Tortoise‘s previous work. ”Seneca,“ the first track, explodes like a cannon. As Jimi Hendrix fired up the opening stanza of ”The Star-Spangled Banner,“ guitarist Jeff Parker’s distant metallic rattle emerges from a fog of full-out, real-life drums and is followed by a machine-shop groove -- drums locked in, more guitar shards, keyboards whizzing by -- then a squeaking sound like yelping dogs. Halfway through comes a patch of handclaps like the remembered sound of some playground game. ”Eros“ brings on broken beats and broken funk guitar and squawked somethings that I could not name if I tried. ”Monica“ opens up with high-pitched washes of sound and talking synth, like the apotheosis of a rave gone disco, then fades into a stoned funk groove, cut up like musique concrete‘s hedonistic wet dreams. ”Speakeasy“ again captures that combination of torn jazz-rock guitar and synths meant for dancing. A really great video game!

Still, though this record tops previous efforts, it’s hard to imagine it drawing as enthusiastic an audience as Born To Run, or as large and fervent a following. And that‘s why it’s hard to imagine it eliciting as vitriolic a reaction as, say, Born in the USA. Tortoise is neither a band of early adopters, discovering a new genre of music in its first burst, nor late adapters just now catching on to a trend. They do not make music for the Everyman. These are sounds for connoisseurs, established tastes. Be it tribute or rehash, Tortoise‘s music isolates the strains of greatness in a disparate array of ”other“ music, makes it its own, then leads fans to access the source material. It conflates decades, continents, embraces the cerebral, the funky and the meta-funky like there were never barriers between these worlds. The end result is not quite like anything. But at times, it’s also not quite anything in and of itself. Past records coasted on drone, studio techniques, locked-in grooves, and the sheer shock of the fact that reformed punk rockers could be so mellow; Tortoise now sound as if they could hold court with their predecessors. They are Professionals.

And that brings to light a difference larger than the sonic gap between the artists discussed in this review, a difference between the decades, now and then, ‘70s art and 21st-century commerce. What Meltzer didn’t foresee was that capitalism would win handily. The CONSUMPTION of music that Meltzer hated so much -- music as product -- was our destiny. Remember, even the rejection of this principle by punk, a half-decade after the rise of Bruce, could not destroy the annunciation of disco. Tortoise count on Calvin Klein perfume commercials to make their music live.

Times change: The reason Meltzer found Bruce so detestable in the ‘70s and ’80s is the reason Tortoise are so likable in the aw-shucks capitalist today, when which side you ally yourself with can determine your very survival. Tortoise may be as original as a group can get in the postmodern today, when the past is called the future: They reclaim music headed toward obscurity, and make it live again. They spearhead new genres in record racks; they have taste. Where punk had revolution, Tortoise have rediscovery and evolution.

If I have any complaint about Tortoise‘s standard, it’s that the final product shares Bruce‘s smoothness, but without the anthems. Don’t worry so much about turning your sources high and low into something ”better,“ I say, be willing to trade in standards for slogans: Life is short. Be outrageous. Come on now! Entertain us. Oh, what a feeling . . .

Just do it.

Reach the writer at alecbemis@brassland.org

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