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They Get It

 

Yo La Tengo: Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs, 1985-2003

Matador, 2005

Rating: 4.9

 

Posted: March 20, 2005

By Laurence Station

Back in June of 2000, Matador included a seven-song sampler of Yo La Tengo’s music with copies of the Hoboken, New Jersey, trio’s latest release, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. The two-disc retrospective Prisoners of Love is a sampler on steroids (and not the kind that are currently besmirching the integrity of the national pastime). Toss in a limited-edition third disc filled with 16 additional tracks (A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities, 1986-2002), and it’s obvious Prisoners of Love isn’t some slapped-together cash-grab move on the part of the artists or label (not that Yo La Tengo ever reached mass penetration even remotely justifying such a soulless product dump on an unsuspecting market).

Since Yo La Tengo (whose name means “I got it!” in Spanish) has never been a particularly singles-oriented outfit, there's no real point in amassing a "greatest hits" collection; likewise, a strict chronological approach would make little sense, given that the band's stylistic restlessness (pop, electronic, free jazz, punk, rockabilly, et al.), which also makes charting its artistic progression a fool's errand. What’s left is a “best representative” approach and, in that respect, Prisoners of Love commendably does its job.

Unsurprisingly, only eight of the 26 tracks are pre-Matador, since the bulk of the group’s best work has been with the label. The early days (and especially ex-member Dave Schramm’s sizzling guitar work) are underrepresented -- for example, the spirited country-punk of “The Way Some People Die” from the band’s 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger, could have easily taken the place of the so-so “Swing for Life,” from 1992’s May I Sing with Me. Despite these (comparatively minor) oversights, Prisoners of Love provides a first-rate overview of Yo La Tengo’s initial two decades.

The noisy, Velvet Underground-inspired guitar rock of the late 1980s (“The Story of Jazz”) and Feelies-like jangle pop of “Lewis” give way to the shimmering art-pop of the early-to-mid ’90s (and the arrival of bassist James McNew, solidifying the current lineup alongside the husband-and-wife team of drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan), with songs like the rock version of “Big Day Coming,” the delightful, guitar-revving “From a Motel 6” (both from 1993’s Painful), the ecstatic, British Invasion-worthy number “Tom Courtenay” and the epic-length “Blue Line Swinger” (both from 1995’s Electr-O-Pura).

The brainy power-pop of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One’s “Sugarcube” and sweetly reflective “Autumn Sweater” signaled a shift toward a more considered, less abrasive sound, which the band refined on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Three choice cuts from that album (the tender ballad “Our Way to Fall,” the infectiously groovy “You Can Have It All” the and heartbreakingly beautiful “Tears Are in Your Eyes”), as well as two of the strongest moments from 2003’s Summer Sun (the hypnotically entrancing “Little Eyes” and saccharine-flavored “Season of the Shark”), help round out a laudably thorough showcase of Yo La Tengo’s ability to operate without self-imposed stylistic limitations and still retain a distinctive and personalized sound.

The outtakes and rarities bonus disc is highlighted by the inclusion of a suitably messy cover of punk band Dead C’s “Bad Politics” and unreleased session tracks from And Then Nothing and Heart. It’s a must for hardcore fans and a solid-enough collection to entice inquisitive novices.

Considering the near twenty-year scope and wealth of material to choose from, Prisoners of Love does an outstanding job of revealing what makes Yo La Tengo so special, and will hopefully expand the trio’s profile. For a group that has doggedly championed obscure bands by performing covers of their songs throughout its career, a little more exposure can only help the entire indie-rock community (yes, it still exists). And, if nothing else, you’ll most certainly raise your Modern Rock IQ several points after absorbing the sounds contained within this master-class compilation.

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