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Yo La Tengo
Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs


risoners of Love turned up at my house one stormy Saturday while I was out to brunch with an old friend whom I don't see much anymore. We made our way home through the downpour to find its envelope peeking through the mail slot. Changing out of our soaked clothes, we settled down on the rug for a game of Scrabble, as that unmistakable thrum drifted through the speakers, mingling with the rain on the windows and warming us from the inside like the glow from a tube amp. It felt like a perfect setting for Yo La Tengo listening.

The majority of you that I'd assume have some acquaintance with the extensive body of work from which this "smattering" culls will understand why it's untenable, possibly unwise, and certainly uninspiring to try to write about Yo La Tengo from some sort of 'objective' standpoint. I apologize, though I'm not really sorry, that I'm not going to have much to say about the music itself. If you don't already know what they sound like, I'd really prefer you to listen for yourself rather than try to imagine it through any attempt I could make at description. They are a deeply personal band, but (and this is their genius) also a deeply personable one. Loving Yo La doesn't take anything special; you don't need hipster cred or hardened ears—they make few if any demands on the listener, save the occasional 10+ minute spacey instrumental (which they wouldn't be that offended if you skipped), and they have so much to offer in exchange…I don't really feel comfortable explaining it.

Speaking personally, I have a hard time separating my experience of their recordings from my conception of them as people. I tend to think of them friends, family, and fans first and foremost, rather than as the master music-makers they undeniably are as well. Fundamentally, they just come off as people, wholly subsumed in the life of music.

It's in this spirit that I understand the paradox in this collection's title. To love's prisoners, only through love can one become truly free. Yo La Tengo's artistry—I'm tempted to call it craftsmanship, but I'm afraid that would seem depreciative—is borne out of their love of the art. (It feels a little ridiculous to invoke notions of "purity" in a rock review, but there it is, the ragged nature of the music itself notwithstanding. I have to keep checking myself from lapsing into religious metaphor.) This is why their music feels so beautifully unpretentious. Which is why it's easy to forget how exceptional it actually is. Especially because they've been at it for twenty years now, and sometimes I feel like they're still just getting started.

The Love Life of the Octopad, a YLT favorites CD that I compiled for some friends a few years ago, included seven songs that overlap with the selections here (out of a possible thirteen, considering that my disc only covered the band's second decade.) Which doesn't seem all that remarkable, except when you consider that, save the occasional "Autumn Sweater" or "Tom Courtenay," YLT don't have many obvious hits or even popular-consensus album standouts—it would be possible to put together an equally "valid" retrospective package with an almost entirely different tracklist. So all I'm saying is that many of my personal favorites are here (including my favorite favorite, "Stockholm Syndrome.") Of course any self-respecting fan could quibble about exclusions (I'll limit myself to one: their sublime take on "Be Thankful for What You've Got" richly deserves another airing), but I have no complaints about any of the inclusions. Therefore, I whole-heartedly endorse this selection.

So much for my opinion. Trust me, my subjectively doting anecdotage is plenty more relevant than the oddball eulogies offered in this collection's liner notes: a true believer rambling on about the time YLT almost played at his nudist colony; the band's tour manager proffering some journal excerpts about European laundromats. While we're on the subject of superfluity, I might as well get pragmatic for a minute and consider the usefulness of this release for people other than myself.

Fair enough.

Q: If I only want one YLT album in my life ever, should this be it?
A: No.

Q: Should YLT neophytes start here?
A: They could, but they'd be served just as well, or better, by any of the last couple albums, especially one with a really long title.

Q: Are casual YLT fans going to want this?
A: Well, it's all really good, but obviously some of it will be redundant, so you might as well get one of the older albums you haven't gotten around to yet. Your call, really. (P.S. You know that Summer Sun is actually good, right?)

Q: What about YLT diehards?
A: Yes, if only because it's packaged with a bonus disc of outtakes and rarities that is frustratingly not available separately.

Q: What do the rarities sound like?
A: Pretty much like you'd expect. Good, but not quite as good as the other two discs. Three of the tracks are alternate versions of stuff on the "smattering," which seems like a lot, but it's okay because one of them is a Kevin Shields remix.

Q: Apart from the music itself, is there anything particularly worthwhile about the way this record is put together?
A: Not especially. The compilers could have tried to make some point about the band's musical development over the course of their career—but then, that's probably not as interesting or notable as the consistency they have maintained throughout, both in quality and general musical approach, which allows this set to eschew chronology entirely without sacrificing cohesion. Basically, it feels like any other Yo La Tengo album, complete with covers and long spacey instrumentals, except with more songs you already know. Remember, the title doesn't make any sort of claim to be definitive, or even superlative.

Q: Isn't the title kind of dumb?

Reviewed by: K. Ross Hoffman

Reviewed on: 2005-04-27

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Log In to Post Comments
Posted 04/27/2005 - 11:35:34 AM by jadiaz:
 nice review...I have Electropura and I Can hear the Heart beating as one... where should I go next? Jorge
Posted 04/27/2005 - 12:31:41 PM by sprkjonz:
 Painful, Electr-o-pura and I Can Hear The Heart.. are all solid albums. Their Little Honda EP is excellent as well. And Then Nothing Turned Itself... is a nice album but bordering on aural valium. If you want quiet, but adventurous, not boring, check out the instrumental album The Sound of the Sounds of Science. Summer Sun a is a big dry ball of crap - stay away from it.
Posted 04/27/2005 - 01:12:39 PM by Noel_Diddy:
 About Summer Sun: Yo La Tengo records were always the type that I bought first and thought about second, but Summer Sun made me wary of buying future releases without tasting first. I feel bad about that. That said, this band released at very least three (3) utterly essential albums between 1990-2000 (just for fun, you decide!) and have contributed greatly to the ideal that stupid pop songs can be smart . . . and rock too.
Posted 04/27/2005 - 02:54:30 PM by idunnowhy:
 I like Summer Sun, but it certainly doesn't have the depth of their big 3. The Today is the Day! EP is also a good listen.
Posted 04/27/2005 - 10:51:16 PM by nicemanwashing:
 I'd say The Sounds of the Sounds of Science is the joker in the YLT pack - not many will have even heard of it, but it's a masterpiece. Other than that, I'd say Painful, Electropura, I Can Hear the Heart... and And Then Nothing... are essential. Summer Sun was the biggest disappointment and I still haven't got over it. Anyone listen to Dump?!
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