Like the chopped-up, mutilated Stars and Stripes on the cover, the opening track of Tortoise‘s magnum opus Standards plays out like another screwed-around American institution. If “Seneca” makes you think back to Hendrix shredding “The Star Spangled Banner” out of his Stratocaster, you’re not alone. This is truly post-rock’s national anthem, and it rocks harder than the fifty years of popular music Standards mashes up, put together.
…And then it slithers. If the guttural first two minutes weren’t enough to shock you out of the hermetic world of TNT, what follows is a bracing and thrilling journey through breakbeat, jazz, blues, the space rock of Joe Meek, even the harpsichord-rooted world of baroque.
Seven months after the release of Standards, something catastrophic happened in America that left a nation searching for a galvanised identity. What followed was not wholly edifying. For those who felt estranged by hawkish foreign policy and aggressive militarisation, being able to cling to a song like “Seneca” must have felt like taking shelter in a utopia. Not a perfect world, understand, but one with exciting artefacts and monuments to inspect, to lift up and peer beneath; one with a terrain littered with interest.
When, in 2007, Tortoise’s beating heart John McEntire produced Antibalas’s Security, I figured those Afrobeat revivalists had finally found an exciting, non-canon direction in which to proceed. Next month, they release its follow-up, a self-titled album on Daptone, from which you can hear “Dirty Money” here. I don’t know if it’s just the radio edit not doing them justice, but it feels like a step in a more perfunctory direction. So much for carrying the torch for experimental music. While we wait for the rest of the album to potentially assuage fears, we can remain grateful for Standards’ enduring appeal, as the ultimate alternative American songbook.
“Seneca” is taken from Standards by Tortoise, released on Thrill Jockey in February 2001.