his is not what I expect when I turn on Yo La Tengo. A cover of an obscure Sun Ra Arkestra song, one that was almost completely ignored upon its release and was only recently reissued on CD? A weird concept, to say the least. “Nuclear War” was envisioned by Sun Ra as some kind of accessible, potential crossover: a fusion between rock and jazz with simplistic political lyrics. In Yo La Tengo’s hands, the song becomes a tight, rhythm-based groove. On all four versions on this EP, the drums are the focal point—loose, rolling, and punctuated by shivery cymbals, they charge along in support of the vocals, often providing the only meat to these skeletal arrangements.
Over the course of these four tracks, one thought recurs: it’s a damn lucky thing that “Nuclear War” is a good song, because all these versions are based on very similar readings of the track. All of the tracks are built on the same (or at least so similar that I don’t really notice the difference) vocal tracks, with Ira Kaplan dispassionately intoning the simple lyrics: “Talkin’ about nuclear war/ It’s a motherfucker, don’t you know?/ If they push that button/ You can kiss your ass good bye,” and on and on like that. Call and response backing chants from Georgia Hubley and the rest of the band flesh out the background, but otherwise the vocals remain remarkably minimal—within a few lines, you’ve learned all the words that will appear in the next 36 minutes.
On the skeletal first version, the band adds the drums and calls it a day—this is the basic framework track, nothing fancy. The second cut incorporates a children’s choir repeating every one of Kaplan’s lines; it’s great comedy to hear the cheerful kids screaming out “it’s a motherfucker” or “you got no ass,” but otherwise their addition doesn’t do much to beef up the song.
It’s on the next two cuts that Yo La Tengo really comes together and explores the possibilities of their source material. “Nuclear War 3” is the best of the batch, starting with an upbeat piano intro, and incorporating piano and horns into the mix throughout the song. It’s also the longest track here, extending the length to over 15 minutes with a lengthy (and intense) sax jam. This version is the standout perhaps because it departs the most from the band’s basic interpretation of the Sun Ra material.
“Nuclear War 4” closes the disc appropriately enough, as a brief summation of all the preceding cuts. It adds more bass and guitar, retains the kiddie choir from the second version and a bit of the piano from the third, and generally is the least “jazzy” cut here. This song sounds more like the YLT we’ve come to expect, a barebones rock band with a sense of humor.
Taken as a whole, this EP is certainly a worthwhile addition to YLT’s already diverse discography—this explores yet more new territory for a band that has always been looking for new things to try. Though the repetition and lack of variety between their takes of “Nuclear War” make for an often frustrating or boring listen, each version on its own merits is well-done and interesting.
Reviewed by: Ed Howard
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01