None of the musical underground's ever-multiplying genres is so singly identified with one band as post-rock is with Tortoise. Since the mid-'90s, indie hipsters and cutting-edge types have indiscriminately applied the tag to anything vaguely improvisational, proggy and/or instrumental, but post-rock usually boils down to the experimentation of a handful of associated Chicago groups and the production credits of impresario John McEntire. Still, Tortoise's open-ended approach didn't exactly refute the loose interpretations: With influences as varied as dub reggae, Krautrock and avant-jazz, the quintet's cross-pollinated aesthetic might as well be the next evolutionary stage after rock, since it doesn't neatly fit any other category.
The only thing missing from the mix was good editing, and that made it difficult to separate the brilliant ideas from the brainstorming culs-de-sac in the group's earliest endeavors. No longer getting by simply on the shock of the new, however, Tortoise's more recent material demonstrates that it's realized cutting is at least as important as cutting-and-pasting to its painstakingly complex compositions. Fine-tuning the already cohesive soundscapes of the visionary 1998 album TNT, the aptly titled Standards provides a coherent, articulate mission statement that redefines a genre better known for stream-of-consciousness ramblings than tight musicianship.
Unlike previous outings, the new disc starts with a bang instead of a whisper, as rapid-fire drum riffs jostle with insinuating guitar lines and groove-minded keyboard refrains. Both a self-contained entity and an overture for the rest of the album, "Seneca" sets the tone for a complete effort in which the whole is no greater than the sum of its parts. You can either take "Eros," with its skronky rhythms and slip-sliding synths, on its own terms or as part of a theme that runs through the cocktail-lounge electronics of "Benway" and plays itself out in the controlled-burn freakouts of the last track, "Speakeasy."
For the first time, Tortoise's mix-and-match pastiche is consistently better in reality than in theory, due mostly to the economy of the songs. "Six Pack" and "Blackjack" have pop-song genes; the first, a Stereolab-ish instrumental with the rhythm taking over the melody, and the latter a renovation of Ennio Morricone's spaghetti Western soundtracks for the space-age bachelor pad. The formal vocabulary -- touching on indie kitsch, free-jazz mutations and electronic sleights of hand -- might seem familiar, but Tortoise creates a new-school repertoire on Standards not only by conceptualizing, but also by savvy execution. For these avant-gardists, the future is finally now.
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