all me old fashioned, but lately I’ve been missing the rocking Yo La Tengo of their younger years. They’ve excelled in so many different areas and styles of music that a focus on any one shade of YLT would be inappropriate, but I must admit that for me, it was always their rave-ups that really made my heart soar. I mean, this is the band that took a one-second loop of feedback and built one of the best indie songs of the 1980’s around it! This is the band that wrote a song called “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss” and actually meant it! This is the band who opened up an album with one of the most yearning, heartbreaking and ethereal songs of their career (“Big Day Coming”) and then threatened to utterly destroy it at the end with a straight-up slamming garage rock version of the same song! Sadly, Yo La Tengo seems beyond that now. With the upcoming release of the reportedly distortion-less Summer Sun, it now marks five straight releases (the frosty masterpiece ...And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, the Danelectro EP, the somewhat ill-advised free-jazz excursion Nuclear War EP, Summer Sun and this) where Georgia, Ira and James seem to lack interest in waking up the neighbors and turning up their amps.
So then we come to The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, Yo La Tengo’s somewhat neglected ’02 contribution, which barely sounds like Yo La Tengo at all, rocker or not. Designed as a soundtrack to eight short films by Jean Painlevé, a sort of underground Jacques Cousteau, and conceived to be played as a live score, there is little here that suggests Yo La Tengo in any sort of incarnation. The intro to “Hyas and Stenorhynchus” sounds a whole lot like the intro to I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One’s “Damage,” and there are scraps of guitar here and there that one could probably identify as Ira’s. Apart from that, however, Sounds of the Sounds is unlike anything the group has done before.
The music, apart from a couple of oddities (namely the bizarre mutant funk of “Shrimp Stories” and the utterly formless “Liquid Crystals”) probably falls somewhere between ambient and post-rock. It’s not the sort of sound that Yo La Tengo has ever been commonly associated with, but, upon consideration, it’s a somewhat logical extension of their previous sound. They had been shifting towards a more ambient direction for years now, with minimalist instrumentals like “Green Arrow” and half-minute outros to “Sugarcube” and “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” and with the recent all-instrumental Danelectro EP. Yo La Tengo apparently didn’t get all of the Sun Ra out of its system with the Nuclear War EP either, and the free-jazz influence becomes especially evident in the second half of the album.
Sensing the possible fan-only limitations of Sounds of the Sounds, the group has only made this album available through their website and at their shows, which is too bad, because this album is an achievement that can be appreciated by just about anyone. Using these styles as reference points for the individual songs, Yo La Tengo has created not only one of the best live scores to a collection of underappreciated underwater documentary shorts that I’ve heard in a long time, but one of the most unfairly overlooked releases from last year, and one that should be heard before approaching Summer Sun.
Pointing out highlights in such a collection isn’t really necessary, but there are a couple good enough to warrant mentioning. “Hyas and Stenorhynchus” is one, anchored only by a six-note bass line that’s minimal and beautiful enough to make even Eno’s Music for Airports beam in approval. However, the real high-water marks (sic) are, appropriately, at the beginning and the end. Opener “Sea Urchins” is the only song with any real threat of getting stuck in your head, with one of the band’s best grooves yet. And finale “The Sea Horse” is akin to an interlude from Mum’s Finally We are No One, stretched out to appropriate album-closer length, and like all the best in music of this sort, achieving bliss through endless repetition.
The concept of the big blue ocean surrounding the album is made clear through the music. The muted sound of the submerged bass, the drip-drip sound of the occasional keyboard, and the whisper of the obviously fake wind machines that permeate the album give it a sense of depth and of grandeur. But frankly, I really don’t give a damn as to how well these songs work in context, and since you probably haven’t seen these films either (and I don’t see a DVD release happening anytime in the near future), neither should you. Anyone will tell you that the mark of a truly worthwhile soundtrack is that it still works well when disassociated from the film completely, and Sounds of the Sounds of Science fits that qualification splendidly.
So hell, as long as Yo La Tengo keeps on making music as wonderful and different as this, maybe I can live without a “Sugarcube” or a “From a Motel 6” on the new album. There’ll be time enough for rocking when we’re older. Meanwhile, Yo La Tengo can just keep doing their thing.