Friday, October 21, 2005

Yo La Tengo

Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs, 1985-2003
It’s a little confusing trying to ascertain the point of this three-disc set. On the one hand, discs one and two offer a sort of “greatest hits” compilation, but in being spread over two discs and combined with the third disc of rarities, the power is a bit watered down. The third disc of rarities would have been fine on its own, like the two-disc rarities set Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo from 1999. In trying to be all things to all people, this set has a bit that is unnecessary for both the serious fan and the casual listener alike.

That said, I have it and I’m glad that I do. Discs one and two give you a chance to hear 26 samplings largely representing the best of each of YLT’s somewhat disjointed phases. “Lewis,” “Did I Tell You,” and “River of Water” present the countryish Feelies-esque early years of the band. “Upside-Down” from 1991’s May I Sing With Me showcases YLT’s slick, poppy phase—nice place to visit, but I wouldn’t want them to live there. “From a Motel 6,” “Shaker” and “Big Day Coming” are standouts from the Painful era circa 1993, with lots of discord, churn, and drone. “Barnaby, Hardly Working” is an early precursor to this sound, an oasis in the otherwise countrified years. “Sugarcube” and “Tom Courtenay” are the straight-rockin’ Ira-singin singles that I never really liked. “Tears Are In Your Eyes,” “Pablo and Andrea,” “Swing for Life,” and “Little Eyes” reveal just how great most YLT songs are that Georgia sings, but “Autumn Sweater” is Ira’s real masterpiece, with maracas, big drum sound and keyboards that are positively erotic. “Stockholm Syndrome,” from 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, releases bassist James McNew’s Neil Young warble-jangle, as accompanied by claves. “Drug Test” is one of the best early YLT songs, from 1989’s President Yo La Tengo, a plodding anthem with the memorable lyrics: “I think of the things that matter, and I think of the things that don’t…whatever it is no matter—I hate feeling the way I feel today—I wish I was high.” The penultimate track is an unnecessary but amusing cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War.” All in all, I would say these first two discs are about 60% wonderful, 25% darn good, and 15% bearable. Which reinforces my point that this should have been a nice, 19-song, 78-minute CD rather two 13-song 60-minute discs.

Disc Three, with 16 songs, is a real treat for the most part. The best tracks are the demos and acoustic versions, which are largely better than the album versions. The Georgia-sung acoustic version of “Tom Courtenay,” for example, is far superior to the original, as is the demo of “Big Day Coming,” with a guitar riff that’s lost in the slightly muddied album version. The demo of “Blue-Green Arrow” is missing the crickets from the version on I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, but the lovely guitar fiddling makes this quite stunning. The Kevin Shields remix of “Autumn Sweater” has a lot of nice sounds and is reminiscent of Shields’ My Bloody Valentine, but the engineering takes most of the emotion out of the original. The covers are mostly well-chosen but uninspiringly performed, including Sun Ra/ Cosmic Rays’ “Dreaming,” the Dead C’s “Bad Politics,” Half-Japanese’s “Ashes on the Ground,” and NRBQ’s “Magnet.” The stark exception is a 1986 cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” which is both ill-advised and poorly performed. Sort of hearkens back to YLT’s cover of Rick Springfield’s “Somebody’s Baby,”—you know, the song you always skipped on Disc One of Genius+Love. A nice surprise are the two songs written for a soundtrack to a movie based in a German disco: “Stay Away from Heaven” and “Weather Shy.” The liner notes explain that YLT oversalted their food in an attempt to channel the German gestalt through dangerously high blood pressure, and I actually believe this. The nice, sick, warped sound of “Stay Away from Heaven” in particular makes you appreciate their sacrifice for art.

While I think the third disc should have been “sold separately” and the first two discs combined into one “greatest hits” disc once the band has truly folded its beach chairs, I greatly appreciate this fairly rapid run through roughly 10 albums and several EPs. It makes for less than fluid sequencing, but that’s inevitable given the breadth of the material covered. While this set lacks a consistent groove, the advantage over their proper albums is that these three discs never allow you to get into any sort of rut. Mucho gracias Yo La Tengo!
(Matador) (Jim Ebenhoh)