Avian Fluke: Despite their latest album cover, the Standard look surprisingly normal onstage.
America's Radiohead? Roots-rock saviors? The Standard sound like neither, but don't tell critics that.
By Bill Forman
Sometimes words just get in the way. Witness the Standard, the Portland-spawned indie outfit that Rolling Stone described as "the Radiohead of America," while the online zine Splendidperhaps influenced by the band signing to Yep Rock recordsapplauded them for reinvigorating the "roots-oriented rock formula." Never mind the fact that the Standard bear little resemblance to Thom Yorke and company. Nor, for that matter, do any of their albums suggest the swagger, shuffle or twang that normally relegates an artist to the roots-rock ghetto.
Tours with the Shins and Clinic only served to add two new names to the pantheon of easy comparisons.
"I swear, if you were smart enough, you could pied piper everybody down the fucking river," laughs frontman Tim Putnam, who does see one bright side to the absurdly wide-ranging comparisons: "If you are continually compared to a bunch of different cult bands, that means you probably don't sound like any one thing. So logically it might be that we actually are our own band. Which I, for better or worse, believe we are."
The elements that make the Standard unique owe much to their diverse backgrounds. Jay Clarke, the group's keyboardist, is classically trained, while bassist Rob Oberdorfer and drummer Robbie Duncan cut their teeth in Portland art-rock and punk bands, respectively. Putnam's quavering vocals, elliptical lyrics and intelligent guitar parts are the product of years spent doing the old lo-fi four-track Guided by Voices thing. (OK, you try writing about the Standard without citing some favorite bands; at least I haven't mentioned Mission of Burma yet.)
The newly formed Standard spent an entire seven days writing and recording a debut album they've since disowned. "We don't really count that as a record. That's why we bought it back [from the label]," says Putnam, who was especially impressed by his vocals back then: "It was like a cross between a goat and a gremlin."
The band memberswho currently reside on separate coasts during downtimehave evolved musically with each new album. Albatross, released last month, finds bassist Oberdorfer recording and engineering, Jeffrey Saltzman (the Sleater-Kinney vet who produced their previous records) coming in only for the final mix. While 2002's August and 2004's Wire Post to Wire featured an ever-expanding array of longer, more overtly complex songs (to the point where the prog-word was beginning to show up in reviews), Albatross sounds leaner and keener, its complexities more subtly rendered.
"It's not as bombastic," agrees Putnam. "I think a lot of that literally was because of how much we toured for Wire Post to Wire. It was almost a conscious decision to not write anything more than four minutes long. It wasn't like watering down or dumbing down the songs at all. It was just making them more succinct and direct. And I think it's a very personal record, lyrically."
Not that Putnam is inclined to expound on his lyrics in the press: "When I left home/ they said you're headed for disaster/ So I moved fast/ but disaster moved faster," may be perfectly accessible, but other lyrics are barely discernible. So what's that bit about "late nights spent with smoking chimpanzees"?
"Yeah, there always is," laughs Putnam. "There's a smoking chimpanzee every night."
So much for lyrical insight. "We did [include lyric sheets] before and it just seemed pretentious in a way," says Putnam. "It sounds stupid, but I think, as a listener, I almost prefer to just get lyrics wrong. For a long time I had no clue what Led Zeppelin's lyrics were, I just liked the music a lot. And then one day, I actually started listening to what he was saying and I was like: Oh my God, these are the worst lyrics ever written in the history of the world. Like golem and Mordor and chicks and what?
"I believe that if you're making records and selling them, and if somebody is buying them, then it literally becomes their record, you know? And unless somebody asks me outright, what does this song mean because I really want to know for me, then I tend to not really want go into it. Because I think it really kind of ruins it."
And what if I really wanted to know about the smoking chimpanzee lyrics, for me?
"Well, you're a writer, so you don't count."
The Standard and Kingsbury Manx play Monday, Nov. 21, at 8pm at the Attic, 931 Pacific Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets $8.(831.460.1800)
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