MusicOn a Higher Plane with Tortoise’s Standards

For those who are convinced that a song has to have lyrics to say something, allow Tortoise’s latest album, Standards to help you think otherwise.

The Chicago-based band brings all sorts of sounds to this album, using instruments like xylophones and marimbas along with the standard guitars, bass, and drums. However, there are no vocals…at all. There is no definite sound either; every song is completely its own. And, for even more listening appeal, this is one of those albums that, every time you listen, you hear something new.

“Firefly” starts off totally mellow. The haunting bass that pervades the song creates the idea of a dark summer night. The wavering guitar and soft xylophone fill in to suggest hints and whispers of things. The absence of a definite melody is like the little flashes of light that you see on a night in June as the fireflies come out to play. Nothing is absolutely certain in this song; although there is some sense of uniformity, nothing is constrained to meter. And as if it couldn’t get any better, “Firefly” flows right into the next song, “Six Pack.”

The two songs could not be any more contrasting in styles, but they absolutely suggest each other. “Six Pack” picks up the dreaminess of “Firefly” and turns it all around into what sort of sounds like the summer day following the night of the fireflies. The beat picks up and the bass backs down. The xylophone and guitar contribute to the light, day-at-the-beach feel of this piece.

“Benway” is a song that is uplifting in a strange way. It begins with a searching intro. The progression towards a dark, minor sound creates a sense of despondency. Things seem to be at their lowest, with the synthesized sounds diminishing as the drum beat slows. Just as it all fades, the beat completely changes and the mood of the piece transforms. The vibraphone adds to the feeling. However, some confusion remains due to the intentional dissonance of the horns and vibes.

“Monica” is probably the closest to a funk number that you can find on Standards. A heavy bass working the melody is reminiscent of something from the ‘70s. The beginning is pretty far out, mixing an organ setting on the keyboard with a “wah-wah” guitar.

Standards is ideal for any situation–whether you’re by yourself or with your friends, studying or just enjoying life. The sometimes psychedelic, sometimes rock quality of the album makes it compatible with many different tastes. The songs are great for background music or to actually pay attention to because they are rather complex musically. In short, this album is just cool.