US - New Jersey - Full Moon 72 - 08/22/02
Yo La Tengo
The Sounds of the Sounds of Science
If you pick up an album by Yo La Tengo from 1992's May I Sing With Me onwards, you can
pretty much guarantee that there will be genius contained within. (I know I throw the term
'genius' around frequently, but bear with me on this one...) However, it wasn't until 1997's
I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and 2000's
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Out that you could seriously
state that Yo La Tengo could sustain their genius over the course of an hour or more (Yo La Tengo's
albums are very long, very involving, and very moving).
It's amazing to think that the music you are hearing is just created by three people from
Hoboken, New Jersey. Not that Hoboken isn't a place that emanates great music - after all, Frank
Sinatra hailed from there - just that it's impossible to imagine that only three individuals
together can create such a depth of sound.
Ira Kaplan, wife Georgia Hubley, and James McNew are staggeringly inventive musicians in their
own right, but as Yo La Tengo they become the embodiment of the perfect band dynamic that
characterised so many of the mythical Sixties bands such as The Beatles, The Beach Boys and The
Velvet Underground. However, the perfect band is rarely characterised by such an inclusive, loving
feeling; of coaxing sounds from some warm aether-world where music exists rather than is simply
It is this quality of exuding warmth and depth of emotion through music that Yo La Tengo
excel. Their latest album The Sounds Of the Sounds of Science was created as an instrumental
soundtrack to the underwater moving pictures of French filmmaker Jean Painlevé. Hearing the
music within this context, but without the visual stimulus of Painlevé's no-doubt-beautiful
submarine films, is to do it an immediate injustice. Which is what I did hearing this album the
first few times.
As soon as you allow your mind to stop imagining the visuals that the music accompanies it
really comes alive - living, breathing and gliding like the jellyfish, octopus and seahorse on
the screen. Opener "Sea Urchins" is immediately characterised by the Yo La Tengo hallmarks of
tight complex drumming, washes of bass and organ, and occasional punctuations of
blissful, yearning guitar. Another part of the magic is trying to fathom which of the three
multi-instrumental band members is playing that particular part: is it Georgia, with her sweet,
plaintive, occasionally cryptic style; Ira with his melodic stability and then sudden, irrational
bursts of corruscating noise; or perhaps James, with his rock-solid timekeeping, empathetic
accompaniments, and sad, longing chords?
Once you allow yourself to accept that the music is transcendentally beautiful, you understand.
It is difficult to actually further describe the virtues of individual moments or songs as the
parts are subsumed so subtly and gorgeously by the whole. All there is to say is that this album
could only have been made by one band. The sublime Yo La Tengo.
Copyright © 2002 Tim Clarke