Murdering the Classics
Every year, Yo La Tengo stage an amazing play-for-pay show in the WFMU studios; taking song requests for pledges to the New York radio station during its annual subscription drive, then knocking them out on the fly. It's the kind of ridiculous undertaking that could only be attempted by a band with an encyclopedic knowledge of pop-culture, an ability to play in a range of styles, and, most of all, a sense of humor. In short: Yo La Tengo at their finest.
Which leads us to their finest longplaying moment: the band's magnum 1997 opus I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. Their eighth album finds the New Jersey trio —guitarist Ira Kaplan, bassist James McNew, drummer Georgia Hubley, all of whom sing— sounding like some glorious indie-pop jukebox; a singular band cycling through a variety of styles in style.
Here, they rewrite Bacharach as slinky, on-the-make, fake-jazz workout ("Moby Octopad"), cover the Beach Boys with a fistful of fuzztone ("Little Honda"), and ape Neil Young (McNew's croaky, sweet "Stockholm Syndrome"). They ironically embrace Disney-ist tweeness ("My Little Corner of the World"), trance out in a space-rock workout (the 11-minute "Spec Bebop"), and even dabble in bossa nova ("Center of Gravity").
And, amidst this, they deliver some of their best-ever songs: the scorching alt-rock snarl of the insistent "Sugarcube," the swirling, sprawling romance of "Autumn Sweater," and the melancholy atmospherics of "Damage," which suggested the direction they'd take on their downbeat next LP, 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, an album whose singularity stood in contrast to the variety heard here.
Of course, genre-hopping albums tend to be terrible; pastiches that play as erratic wholes, works that give listeners a headache from their audio schizophrenia. And, whilst we're talking about qualities-that-are-usually-a-huge negative, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One is a monstrous 16 tracks and 68 minutes long; which wasn't strange back in 1997, at the peak (or, indeed, nadir) of the CD era, but seems excessive when compared to generations either side.
Yet, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One transcends these usual standards; becoming not some sprawling, ill-focused mess, but the culmination of Yo La Tengo's career. Though they've made a host of singular-sounding records, the band's metier has been its ability to shift styles, reference eras, and work through genres; to collaborate with Jad Fair and free-jazz vets, to make albums insistently melodic and film soundtracks spare and desolate.
Here, those many elements are made singular; made one, as the title suggest. There's no special trick of sonic sorcery that manages to do so, just a patina of greatness; the special sheen of a band at the peak of their powers, alive and in love with every sound they touch.
Record Label: Matador
Release Date: April 22, 1997