I was unable to attend the premiere of Yo La Tengo's live accompaniment to Jean Painlevé's "legendary but rarely-seen" series of underwater documentaries back when I was a freshman at UC Santa Cruz in 2001. Within that school year I had become a devoted fan, finally discovering the Matador catalog outside of Pavement, buying up all the used records I could find and downloading the others. I ached to go but on top of the expensive tickets, my car was at home in Berkeley and--worst of all--being the silly introvert I was that year, I had no friends to drive me. When Sounds of Science was released on CD I was eager to buy it but YLT were only selling it through their website and I was too lazy to send away an order. I was able to download the album a few months later and was pleased when it didn't wow me; it was groovy but I could tell something was missing. After last night, I know what it was:
Coupled with James McNew's fuzzy, rolling bass & Georgia Hubley's perfect, odd rhythms & Ira Kaplan's controlled chaos guitar solos, I felt lucky. I kept hoping they'd end the set and come back for a Beach Boys cover but was happy with what they gave me. (If you want to hear brief samples click here.)
The best marriage was probably LIQUID CRYSTALS, with its fluorescent visuals that recall the finale of 2001, which could have been rote psychedelia scored by Pink Floyd nonsense but this trio has more in common with Ligeti than Roger Waters. Their score is punctuated by noise shards from Kaplan over steady jazz kit work from Hubley and McNew's meandering bass. And like good improvisers, they know when to peak and when to lay back; but we know the crescendo is always building. Another favorite was the melodic-cute SEA URCHINS where Painlevé's quixotic narration makes interesting parallels: "the stems, at high magnification, resemble temple pillars." I won't soon forget the final rushing camera move across an urchin's stiff stems: the move could be no longer than two inches but with the macro zoom lens it felt like a helicopter (or space ship) flying over a forrest of alien trees. Then, mid-flight, it cuts to the eponymous creatures assembling into the word "FIN". I hadn't felt that stirred by a film's editing since certain juxtaposing cutaways in THE NEW WORLD; for instance, the shot of a ship's main sail unfurling inside the scene of Smith's first interrogation at the Powhatan village. But it would not have worked were it not for the live musical element.
For a while I listened a lot of "noise" music and bought a few too many imported albums. But after I saw Merzbow live at the first stateside All Tomorrow's Parties I swore off recorded noise, no matter how much I loved that first Fennesz album I bought. The impossible force of a live noise show (and that Merzbow set in particular) will never be matched by my headphones no matter how loud I crank the volume; you have to feel it in your chest. Our view of the screen last night was often blocked and people kept shuffling up and down the isles but I will, in all likelihood, not revisit the recorded versions of these soundtracks. The marriage of live music and film was just fine by me and, as such, no bedroom séance will conjure that feeling I had zooming over that field of urchin stems.
That's why I listened to Painful this morning on my 45 minute commute to Queens. Most fans will point you to I Can Hear the Hear Beating as One as the group's magnum opus, the perfect expansion of Painful's themes to operatic heights that transcends the college/indie rock genre YLT helped define. I disagree. ICHTHBAO has broader aims that it bullseyes, sure, but Painful didn't need expansion; it's perfect as it is.
With James McNew firmly in place on bass, Painful shows off what has become their now-definitive sound: a waterbed of bass and organs colored fuzzy by drivers, spare yet energetic drumming, and diverse guitar work that careens from syrup sheen to siren squall. Sometimes Kaplan’s noisy solos counterpoint his ethereal, sweeping pads of delayed melody from song to song and sometimes at the same time in the same song. He’s given this freedom by the steady and reliable rhythm duo of Hubley and McNew, who are never showy but always effective. It’s a wonder to hear each player work off one another.
What makes this band still more intriguing is the marriage at its core between Ira and Georgia. Ira sings more often than his wife (and his guitars often background her stellar stick work) but he concedes to Georgia’s poignant, tender vocals on a few stand out songs like the centerpiece ‘Nowhere Near’. They often back one another but on ‘The Whole of the Law’ they duet until Mr tells Mrs “Found out I was in love with you” in a moment so naked you might blush.
But they wake you up right away with the next song, a re-imagined reprisal of the opener ‘Big Day Coming’ that replaces ambient synthesizers with meaty bass guitar propulsion. Often we are lulled into forgetting this band can turn up the gain and wail. Even if they are middle aged and domesticated and married. After a year of 9-5 work weeks, early evenings and weekend daytrips, maybe this will be the band that defines the angst New York has plagued me with and detached me from my loved ones. Yo La Tengo! may not only be the Cuban outfielder’s cry but mine: I finally get this thing called growing up in love. You get what you give and I am eternally grateful for this band and the young lady in my life. I hope to attend a Maxwell’s Hannuka concert one of these days but for now I can’t wait to taste Grand Canyon rainfall.