Nothing 'Standard' About Tortoise's New Album

Despite what its title may suggest, the fourth album from Chicago instrumental quintet Tortoise features anything but "Standards." The set, which Thrill Jockey releases Feb. 20, is one of the most

Despite what its title may suggest, the fourth album from Chicago instrumental quintet Tortoise features anything but "Standards." The set, which Thrill Jockey releases Feb. 20, is one of the most anticipated independent albums of the new year and is primed to further raise the international profile of its creators.

Since 1998's "TNT" album, Tortoise's members-multi-instrumentalists John McEntire, Doug McCombs, John Herndon, Dan Bitney, and Jeff Parker-devoted time to a myriad of side projects. McEntire rebuilt his Soma Studio and scored the film "Reach The Rock" in addition to doing production and engineering work with Stereolab, Sam Prekop, and David Grubbs, among many others.

McCombs released two albums under the Brokeback moniker, while Herndon, Bitney, and Parker toured and released three albums with their free-jazz group Isotope 217. And all of the members of Tortoise except Bitney toured the U.S. and South America with Brazilian tropic·lia legend Tom Zè.

Indeed, owing to such busy schedules, the making of a Tortoise album can be a logistical nightmare. But whereas material for "TNT" was written and continually revamped in the Soma studio over a period of many months, Tortoise broke from tradition and entered the studio this time around with a number of fully formed ideas for "Standards."

"We hadn't done that in the past," McCombs admits. "We really never prepared very much before we recorded the other albums." The band also found unlikely inspiration in sifting through rough ideas left unfinished during the "TNT" sessions, a process that yielded songs such as the two-part "Eden" and "Firefly," which was based on an idea that first surfaced during a rehearsal jam.

Without eschewing Tortoise's love of bottom-heavy tones, complicated drumming, mallet instruments, and decidedly non-rock reference points, the 10-track, 44-minute "Standards" is "more immediate" and "less ponderous and precious" than the hour-plus "TNT," according to McCombs.

The album opens with the unusually aggressive "Seneca," which begins with two minutes of over-modulated riffing in the vein of Neil Young. Other highlights include the Frank Zappa-tinged "Blackjack," the futuristic funk pastiche "Eros," and "Monica," which gives a nod to the memorable melody of Ashford & Simpson's R&B classic "Solid."

The cuts will also likely prove much easier to translate into a live setting, a task that required Tortoise's members to frequently switch instruments in the middle of performing certain "TNT" songs.

"It became kind of difficult to get all the 'TNT' material to work live, because of the way it was put together," McEntire says. "That doesn't influence the way we write necessarily, but I think all of us in the back of our minds were thinking if we took a certain approach that was a little more friendly to playing live, we could save ourselves some grief later on."

Audiences will see for themselves when Tortoise hits the road this spring, beginning with a European tour in early April that will include a performance at the U.K.'s All Tomorrow's Parties festival, which the band was asked to "curate." The event is set to feature the first performance in more than eight years from pre-punk legend Television, along with a number of groups with whom Tortoise has been associated, such as the Sea And Cake (in which McEntire plays drums), Broadcast, and the Ex.

A full U.S. tour will commence in mid-May and will be followed by a trek to Japan, according to Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards, who adds that "select performances are possible" in the U.S. around the time of the album's release.

Although marketing Tortoise's sometimes confounding music can be an uphill battle for Richards and her staff, the band has seen a steady growth in sales from album to album. 1994's self-titled debut and 1996's "Millions Now Living Will Never Die" have sold 75,000 copies combined in the U.S., according to SoundScan. "TNT," which peaked at No. 25 on Billboard's Heatseekers chart, has sold nearly 53,000 copies in the U.S.

Richards, who describes "Standards" as "the most eloquent and enjoyable display of [Tortoise's] talent as writers and as players," says that the challenge this time is to reach "the people who buy records actively but don't buy pop records -- the jazz and classical consumers."

To do so, Thrill Jockey will work to broaden press coverage of the group and negotiated a new European distribution deal with preeminent electronic label Warp. (The label's other releases will continue to be distributed in Europe by City Slang.)

As with "TNT," "Standards" will be simultaneously released on the Japanese label Tokuma, complete with two bonus tracks. But unlike with past efforts, Tortoise has no plans to issue remixes of the new tracks. Previously, top electronic acts such as Autechre, Spring Heel Jack, and UNKLE have re-worked the group's tunes for two limited-edition remix albums, both of which are now out of print.

"I think it's sort of time to give that a rest," McEntire says. "I think now when we finish a song, we have a more concrete idea of what we've accomplished," McCombs adds. "In the past, especially with the first album and with 'Millions,' it seemed like the material was a lot more open-ended and leant itself to various interpretations.