Yo La Tengo are one of the most consistently brilliant and longest-running bands in existence today, rivaled only perhaps by Sonic Youth in the longevity-with-strong-artistic-integrity department. They’ve crafted everything from ferocious punk blasts to elegiac orchestral epics, infusing every sound with their signature heartfelt energy.
Beginning as nerdy New Jersey kids spinning out thrashy Velvet Underground-inspired post punk, they’re now elder statesmen with more genre permutations under their collective belt than most entire labels could hope for, much less a single band. This release in particular showcases their penchant for out-there experimentation and a playful sense of the beautifully absurd.
The Sounds of the Sounds of Science features 78 minutes of instrumental music – an entire score written and performed by the band to accompany eight legendary but rarely-seen undersea documentary shorts by influential French avant-garde filmmaker Jean Painlevé.
Originally debuted on stage at the San Francisco Film Festival in April 2001 with the band providing live accompaniment to the films, these pieces echo the films’ haunting surrealist imagery, yet the music is equally evocative on its own, from the dreamy soundscapes of Sea Urchins and How Some Jellyfish Are Born to the harsher, more dissonant moods of Liquid Crystals and The Love Life of The Octopus.
The final track, The Sea Horse, is a sparkling highlight: inspired minimalist structure the likes of which Terry Riley or Steve Reich may blush at, with buzzy Farfisa tones John Cale would jealously covet; a soaring and wistful gust of wind melody flitting above the structure; and all manner of distorted and submerged effects populating the depths. It’s the sort of piece that handily sets me off to sleep on low volume, or makes my heart swell out of my chest when it’s turned up to proper levels, enough to convey the powerful undercurrent of longing and mystery locked deep within.
In September 2001, the group headed into the studio to lay down the complete score with longtime producer Roger Moutenot. The resulting album also features exquisite cover photos from the films, along with eerie-yet-comforting illustrations by Jim Woodring and Jad Fair.
This entrancing rarity is out of stock at Boomkat, Amazon simply doesn’t carry it, and YLT’s own website store is down for maintenence. BUT I found a copy at discogs marketplace. I’m so thankful to own it, but you can listen right here.