There's an experimental, devil-may-care attitude to Tortoise's Standards that seems sorely missing in the rest of their catalog, and I'm not entirely sure why that is. But there is something about the album that just feels more lively and interesting than usual, from the way songs flow together to the conciseness of the album itself to the way new ideas and melodies come much more rapidly than they do on other Tortoise albums. It has the energy, the ebb and flow, of a masterfully planned/played live show, taking its time with the slower/mellower bits but not losing a listener's interest in the process.
Largely, the greatness of Standards--at least, the greatness I see in it--can be attributed to the way in which it was recorded. Where the overly long, occasionally kind-of-boring TNT was mostly written, improvised, and heavily edited in the studio over the course of a year, Standards was largely written beforehand and then embellished a bit in the studio in a much shorter period of time. Strange, then, that Standards is Tortoise's most electronic album. I don't mean that it's their techno album, just as TNT wasn't their jazz album. Instead, the inspiration is just more pronounced than usual. Standards features rhythms equally alongside the melodies, mixing the drums and bass as high as the other instruments, or, as is the case with the anomalous 'Monica', which doesn't sound much like Tortoise at all, borrowing a dreamy, synth-pop sound (with either a vocoder or a talkbox on a guitar) that is more readily found on a Daft Punk album.
Tortoise's weakness as a band is their precarious balance between being intriguing instrumental music and sleep inducing, immaculately played easy listening. This is something that came up a lot in reviews of their last album, It's All Around You, which brought little new ideas to the table and seemed content to coast on good graces. It may not prove as bad as my memory, but it's such a stark contrast to Standards, an album that helped pull the band back from the edge in my book. The tonal, textural, melodic, and rhythmic palette of the band has never been as wide and yet as deep as it is here. Though I think it may be the album on which Tortoise's patented vibraphones/marimbas make the least appearances, their sparing use makes them seem all the more unique and purposeful. Moreover, the band neither fall back on old habits nor the lazy dynamics of their post-rock contemporaries. Granted, I like many other post-rock bands, but you can sort of characterize most of the songs as being quiet-to-loud-and-back-again crescendo races. At the same time, when Tortoise do go back to the well for their minimalist interludes ('Firefly' could easily have fit unto TNT) or repetitive structures ('Eden 1' keeps the same grinding beat, though it fades to the background when ponderous guitars pick out a duet), it's never for very long. Finally, Standards has, outside of Millions Now Living Will Never Die, the best pacing and sequencing of any Tortoise album. A few of the songs do that segue thing that always gets my rocks off ('Seneca' into 'Eros', 'Firefly' into 'Six Pack') and in general, a deft balance is struck between intense exploratory Tortoise grooves (at least, what passes for a Tortoise groove anyway) and the chillier ambient spacey stuff.
One hopes that, after: 1) the lukewarm reception It's All Around You received 2) compiling the odds and ends boxset A Lazarus Taxon 3) performing Millions Now Living Will Never Die at different musical festivals over the past 2 or 3 years, the band were reminded of what made them great in the first place. One need look no further than Standards for what exactly Tortoise is capable of, an album that both sounded like Tortoise and added new pages to their recipe book at the same time.