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The early line on Standards -- that the disc would prove to be Tortoise's most accessible release thus far -- caused the heart of this particular fan to sink faster than stocks in the high-tech sector, and for good reason. The joys inherent in the soundscapes created by this thorny Chicago collective have nothing to do with concepts like commercialism, and changing the songs enough to attract airplay on modern-rock stations would leave little of interest behind. Sort of like an episode of Temptation Island on which all of the contestants were happily married and physically grotesque.

But worry not, dear hearts. Although the tracks on Standards may be a tad more succinct than some of those on the act's previous salvo, 1998's TNT, the men of Tortoise (John McEntire, Douglas McCombs, John Herndon, Dan Bitney and Jeff Parker) remain as adventurous as ever. "Seneca," the opener, rides in on a swell of distorted guitar straight from the Jimi Hendrix School of National Anthem Playing before giving way to drum-and-bass rhythms, synthesized clapping, whining keyboards and finger-picked Fripp-ery that shouldn't cohere but do anyway. That's followed by "Eros," built upon the inspired juxtaposition of electronic burbles and gently hammered vibes; "Benway," in which a jazzy sub-melody is mated with rhythmic breaks that suggest Captain Beefheart in a beret; and "Firefly," an echo-laden slab of ambient guitar atmospherics with no interest in providing a nice segue between Incubus and Creed.

Those who've criticized Tortoise for musical intellectualism will find more grist for their mill: Although "Six Pack" swings to some degree, the players remain within the song's stricture rather than pushing beyond it. Yet several numbers exhibit more than their share of aural aggressiveness, including "Eden 2," marked by some prominent boom-thwack, and "Blackjack," which frequently finds the instrumentalists massing behind a single groove instead of allowing it to splinter. The effect pushes the music into the foreground without sacrificing the intricacy that's always made the band's albums so enjoyable to revisit.

The album's title may be something of an in-joke, since none of the compositions on hand has entered the lexicon of American songcraft. Nonetheless, Tortoise's standards remain thrillingly high -- Standards notwithstanding.

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts