JOHN MCENTIRE AND Tortoise have finally put the fun back in funk. Throughout Tortoise's latest album, Standards, they seem to be showing a good-time demeanor that has been missing from the band's previous albums. In fact, there are so many musical and ideological shifts on this new album that Tortoise seems to have evolved from a staid avant-jazz collective into a bigger, happier, more productive electronica crew.
Before Standards, Tortoise was known for being about as lighthearted as Raskolnikov after that mishap with the old lady. On the Chicago band's self-titled debut album in 1994, multi-instrumentalists McEntire, Doug McCombs, John "Johnny Machine" Herndon, and Dave Pajo created sparse rock for the intellectual masses. With their second album, Millions Now Living Will Never Die, McCombs and Herndon seemed to be picking up influences foreign to most rock musicians--Philip Glass, Steve Reich, Jamaican dub-plate productions, and Miles Davis in his more experimental forms--and blending them into a nuanced, sprawling sound. By the time 1998's TNT was released, however, Tortoise had alienated itself from most indie-rock listeners: These nonlinear, digital compositions might have been appreciated by readers of the Wire and few others.
It can safely be said that Standards won't be turning up on any Clear Channel Communications station any time in the next decade, but it is a more accessible, even funkier album. The new Tortoise alternates between superphat gurgling funk riffs, clipped electro beats, and a pattern of almost bell-like marimba sounds (drawn from the Steve Reich songbook). But McEntire's greatest studio gag is his overloaded percussion sound on "Seneca": The drums break up as though being played through a cheap boombox on a basketball court. "Six Pack" relies on a South American rhythm, creating an upbeat, almost tropical tone, while "Monica" begins with danceable house synths and an R&B backbeat. Many of the tracks adhere to modified hip-hop beat rules but add in eclectic sounds, like a Middle Eastern guitar riff or tweaked horns.
Bassist McCombs has called Standards "less ponderous and pretentious" than TNT. But just because the album is lighthearted does not mean that its music is not also challenging and sonically progressive enough to support its own ethnomusicology seminar. It's true that Tortoise's musical innovation might seem less obvious when they're being playful. Still, I'd learn more from dancing to a lively post-rock romp than sitting and listening to a cerebral jazz lecture any day.