Friday, January 20, 2017

Tortoise's "Standards" and the Haze of Student Judgement

Tortoise’s It’s All Around You has proven to be a vivid snapshot of my somewhat hazy years in Carrollton. I added several Tortoise albums to my wishlist back then, but I never followed up with them, nor did I lose interest enough to remove them. They just sat there. Standards, which by several accounts is a critically praised album by Tortoise, was one of these albums destined to wishlist purgatory.

I recently stumbled across a used copy at Recycled Records on the Denton square, however, and it found its way into rotation at last. Standards precedes Its All Around You chronologically, and comes off as a bit less “prog” than its successor. What it lacks in epic scope, however, it trades for a more improvised, jammy feel. Standards allows me to imagine Tortoise as an alternate lineup for Frank Zappa's later iterations of the Mothers of Invention.

I had only spun the album a few times when I quite literally road-tested it. For the first year at my new position, I ended up being responsible for transporting a few middle school students to participate in the all-region band clinic and concert. We used an ISD truck for this purpose and as I logged the mileage, I noticed that there was a CD player in the dash. I just couldn’t help myself. I went back to my car and grabbed a couple of discs from the rotation stack. One of them happened to be Tortoise’s Standards.

On the drive, I gave the students chance to converse amongst themselves, at least at first. This only lasted a little while, though, and soon the silence became unbearably deafening. I gave my passengers some choices based on some very vague descriptions of the albums I grabbed. I described Tortoise as “weird jazz.”

Of course, I recognize that to describe Tortoise as a strictly jazz group is a bit of a stretch. What they do requires some kind of further description. Perhaps it would have been more fair to call them “jazz-rock.” Or more like “rock-jazz.” Or maybe “post-rock-jazz.” Hard to say. Traveling through these increasingly ridiculous labels would just obfuscate matters, so I indulged in the description in the spirit of making things simple for the average middle schooler. One student, who happened to be the High School director’s daughter, spoke up in favor of “the jazz.”

Knowing that she probably was expecting Miles Davis or Count Basie, I cautiously re-emphasized that “It’s weird!” and with a wry grin, I put it in.

And that’s when things really got awkward. At least for them.

If those first two minutes of drum outfreakage seemed long in the above clip, it was even more so with the palpable haze of my student's judgement hanging in the air.  Whatever.  After all, these were the best music students in the school, so they should be able to form some sort of informed opinion. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway.  In truth, I was selfishly happy as a clam.

What is not readily apparent when listening to Tortoise on record, and what you can see above, is that all the band’s members are multi-instrumental wizards, often changing instruments in the middle of the song. Listening with that in mind, Tortoise presents a fascinating puzzle to be unraveled. A full concert would be something to behold, especially if you walked in with a good knowledge of the band's material.

In their defense, the students had no context or experience that might have given them a toehold on Standards. If they had an opinion, they did not let on. They remained silent for the remainder of the trip, although I sensed a lot of “WTF?” glances being exchanged in the back seat. It probably didn't help that the speakers in the truck made everything sound like it was underwater. Finally, one student broke the ice and made a somewhat snide comment about the cat-like sound qualities of the synth melody in Monica.

Just when it seemed like we could have a conversation about what is interesting about Tortoise in general and Standards specifically, we arrived at the clinic site. It was tempting to initiate a conversation about timbre and sound quality, but I thought that it might be better not to press my luck. We headed in for what would be a long weekend of band rehearsal.

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