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Yo La Tengo - Prisoners of Love

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Artist: Yo La Tengo

Album: Prisoners of Love

Label: Matador

Review date: Apr. 12, 2005

A career retrospective from Yo La Tengo was simultaneously premature and long overdue. Premature because they are still, by anyone’s standards, a prolific band in the midst of a vibrant career. Long overdue because Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley released their first album, Ride the Tiger, 19 years ago. Aside from a few reissues and the rarities compilation Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo, they had not yet compiled a best-of. It’s also overdue because music fans have begun celebrating and mythologizing their peers: The Pixies reunited last year (you may have heard something about that); Slint recently played a series of sold-out shows on both coasts to audiences that were in elementary school during the band’s first run; Stephen Malkmus has already had to address rumors about a Pavement reunion.

But Yo La Tengo never stopped recording, never broke up, and maybe most importantly, never stood still long enough for a myth to take shape. Indeed, they released some of the best albums of that period – 1990’s Fakebook and ’93’s Painful are personal favorites – but any attempt to paint a definitive portrait would spill off the canvas. Which version of Yo La Tengo do you like best – the one that made short, clamorous songs like “Tom Courtenay,” or the band that made beautiful, drowsy songs like “Night Falls on Hoboken”? Were they better when they were getting guest appearances from Jad Fair and Daniel Johnston, or William Parker? When they were covering Jackson Browne, or Sun Ra? Truth is, Yo La Tengo are important not because they sound one way or another, but rather because they embody the joy of being a music fan, of following a skein of influences through different styles and different eras, of letting your tastes evolve over time. Yo La Tengo’s writing has thus often gone through subtle, often subconscious, stylistic changes. As bass player James McNew told Signal to Noise in the summer of 2003 when reflecting on their recent quiet period, “We’d been writing songs for a few months. At some point along the way, we realized that all the songs were really quiet…It was something that took a long time to sink in.”

Compilations like Prisoners of Love are designed less for those who are already fans than for those who simply want to get an idea of what a particular band has done. While Yo La Tengo fans will point to a number of songs that probably could have been included – there’s no “Detouring America with Horns,” no “Alyda,” no “Cherry Chapstick” – the selections here are all worthwhile, and sequenced in a way that finds unexpected connections throughout their 20-year career. “Our Way to Fall,” from 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, with Kaplan’s hushed vocals, leads into “From a Motel 6,” from 1993’s Painful, a feedback-laden song just as dependent upon Hubley’s delicate vocals. “The Summer,” a slowly paced duet from Fakebook leads into the equally quiet and measured “Tears Are in Your Eyes.” Among the lengthy instrumentals that are a staple of Yo La Tengo’s live shows, “I Heard You Looking” and “Blue Line Swinger” are both included. Their vast repertoire of covers is probably the only facet of their career that’s underrepresented, although the second disc ends with Ira and Georgia’s duet of Sandy Denny’s “By the Time it Gets Dark,” an appropriately laid-back sign-off.

Longtime fans will be more interested in the bonus disc, A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities, 1986-2002. While some of the material here sounds fairly dashed-off – there’s a demo version of “Big Day Coming,” which by my count is the third version of that particular song released thus far – the disc also has Kevin Shields’ remix of “Autumn Sweater” and two songs sung by Hubley: the fuzzed-out “Pencil Test” and the jazzy “Weather Sky,” both of which rank alongside anything on their albums.

The salient thing about Prisoners of Love, though, is that it’s less exciting than a new Yo La Tengo album. That sounds like a criticism, but I mean it as a compliment. This compilation just happens to have come along after 2003’s beautiful Summer Sun, which featured collaborations with Other Dimensions in Music on jazz and pop styles long forgotten by bands obsessed with the early 1980s – or even YLT’s peers from the ’90s. They might just now be releasing their best music. And after spending a few hours with Prisoners of Love, that's the biggest compliment I can give them.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of Yo La Tengo

The Sounds of the Sounds of Science

Nuclear War

Summer Sun

Today is the Day

I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

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