This is particularly true for a band like Yo La Tengo, who has remained for the past decade on the radar of most underground rock purveyors, if not in their CD changers. Though I’ve listened to a handful of the band’s more recognizable albums, I’ve made little effort to absorb the music; thankfully, their recently Matador-released retrospective, “Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003,” has given me the chance. My reaction borders on rapture.
The Hoboken, N. J. band emerged two decades ago from the throbbing creative arteries of guitarist/mastermind Ira Kaplan, bassist James McNew, and drummer Georgia Hubley. The band has undergone some major stylistic transitions over the years, and all their incarnations are represented on this sprawling compilation.
The double-CD set opens with “Shaker” (from the 1993 album of the same name), a churning pot of jangly guitars that threatens to boil over as each tinny cymbal clang and distorted chord is added to the brew. The song is all twitchy, nervous-tic buildup; I’m searching here for a modern mainstream reference point, but coming up empty. This song, and those to follow, have a rich mellow ambience that no radio-friendly band has managed to emulate, but it’s notable that these tunes could fit comfortably in an iPod right alongside Norah Jones or Jack Johnson.
The first disc also contains two of the very best offerings in the set. The 2003 “Summer Sun” track “Little Eyes” is the Beach Boys staring at their shoes, with a teasing, understated guitar solo and the surprisingly maternal delivery from Kaplan as he compares the memory of a lost love to a “sound echoed everywhere like a buzzing amplifier burning through the air.” It’s worth noting that the liner notes sorely lack a lyric sheet; instead, we get two essays, one of which comically describes the band’s no-show at a nudist colony gig.
The real jewel of the collection, “Our Way to Fall” (from 2000’s “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One”), comes a few tracks later. The lulling synth caresses the chorus, “Cause we’re on our way / We’re on our way to fall in love,” though Kaplan’s poised and tender delivery suggests that he’s already arrived.
The mild-mannered band generally keeps their amps at 1.1, but on a few of their more immediately accessible tracks, the pop melodies introduce themselves more assertively. This is particularly evident on their more Replacements-tinted tunes, like late ’80s tracks “Lewis” and “The River of Water,” though subsequent albums also feature shiny happy radio moments (most agreeably on Electr-O-Pura’s “Tom Courtenay”). Standing alone, these songs are pleasant enough, but the effect can be unsettling when these songs follow more experimental tracks.
And when the band suddenly throws a damn hard rock song (“The Story of Jazz”) and a miscalculated cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” in the mix, the gentle giant of a compilation loses its way. Fortunately, this decline does not occur until the second disc’s final tracks, and this uncharacteristic sloppiness is redeemed by the lyrical ease of album closer “By the Time It Gets Dark.”
The limited edition version of “Prisoners of Love” also features a third disc featuring outtakes and rarities of the band’s catalog throughout the years. The unreleased material is meager, made up of rambling rough cuts of the refined Yo La Tengo melodies. The rarities, on the other hand, are consistently on par with their album tracks, most notably with a jagged cover of noise legends Dead C.’s “Bad Politics” and a remix of “Autumn Sweater” by Kevin Shields that finds the hazy dreamscape the original was ambling towards.
As for the traditional what-is-missing/what-is-unnecessary debate that enthralls the diehards long after any greatest hits collection is released, I’m sure they can take one look at the tracklist and form their own opinions on the worthiness of this comp without my help. But I can say this: for those uninitiated in the ways of the Tengo, “Prisoners of Love” will inspire you to explore what appears to be a messy and challenging back catalog. I’ll see you on the other side.
—Staff writer Ben B. Chung can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.