The first cut on Tortoise's new disc is a keeper. Or is it the second? Or maybe just part of the second -- the rocking part, before the twittering takes over. Same thing happens way into the disc, too. You have to wade through lots of pretension for the good parts. Tortoise's nervy, ambient musical forays are so cryptic, it's hard to tell where one track ends and the next begins. Not helping matters: superficially verbal material on the insert that 1) doesn't tell you anything about the CD, 2) tells you nothing about the musicians, and 3) is so interiorized, it's like a love letter to a belly button. The textures are occasionally interesting, the pedigree undeniable. Since Tortoise formed in Chicago 11 years ago, it has released CDs and remixes that interact with and influence acts that range from Spring Heel Jack to Isotope 217 and Stereolab. This is music with smarts, for sure. But what the smarts apply to is anybody's guess, particularly when one track mutates into another in an anemic, unsuccessful attempt to build a mood.
Ambient music can be cool -- Eno proved that more than 25 years ago. Techno can be, too; listen to old Orb, new Fatboy Slim, much of the electronic/world beat music from the Six Degrees label. Tortoise would have you believe it's beyond cool, what with producer/drummer John McEntire's endless trickling and his inability to resolve a song. Maybe this is called Standards because it's Tortoise's attempt to raise the bar of pop music to the level of cool jazz. It certainly is cerebral enough to disqualify it as conventional rock, and its restlessness is -- at least on an intellectual plane -- jazzy. Despite its glassy elegance -- McEntire and his shifting collective know how to layer, though they resolutely avoid ensemble and intimacy -- Standards is ultimately so geeky and pale, it's invisible.