Monday, July 14, 2008

Number Six: Yo La Tengo's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997)

I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. The title alone divides us. Is this a heartfelt paean to common human experience or an ivory tower, indier than thou fuck off? Well you know which side of the divide I come down on. Ira Kaplan, the singer and guitarist, wrote rock criticism before forming Yo La Tengo. He had an idea of what rock should be before becoming a rock star (or what passes for one in indie rock). There have been other rock critics-turned-rockers before and most of them have been the worse for it, betraying a self awareness that detracts from the genre's necessary emotion. Yo La Tengo avoid this pitfall out of sheer earnestness. I read an interview with Carl Newman, songwriter for the New Pornographers, in which he explained that he wasn't a great musician, he just had good taste in music so he knew what to copy. This approach resulted in satisfying, if uninspiring, power-pop for the New Pornos. For Yo La Tengo it resulted in a masterpiece.

As is only befitting to a band that always seemed happy just to be around, the album is overtly introspective. The songs are mostly about relationships, but not the usual stuff of rock n' roll. They take place in the difficult pauses in between happiness, filled with anticipation or dread. Often they record the unspoken thoughts of one person about another. I love Brown Sugar and Blitzkrieg Bop as much as anybody, but sometimes I want something more in line with my own experiences. I can be cynical and pragmatic about human relationships, yet like Ira and Georgia, there's a foundation of romanticism at the bottom of my personality that hasn't diminished. I jokingly refer to my philosophy as "optimistic nihilism" but it's not really nihilistic. It's more the realization that life is fucked up in many ways, and that people can no more transcend this fucked-upedness than a rock can float. But you can't act that way. Sometimes beautiful things happen. I know, they've happened to me.

It helps that I Can Hear includes two of Yo La Tengo's best singles, "Sugarcube" and "Autumn Sweater." In "Sugarcube," Ira sings of his desire to "try to be more assured, try to be more right there/try to be less uptight, try to be more aware." There's no rock swagger there, but just before this he said, "Whatever you want from me, whatever you want I'll do/try to squeeze a drop of blood from a sugar cube." Now that's classic rock braggadocio followed by conciliation rather than conquest. "Autumn Sweater" never made much sense to me, but the melody is great and so is the two line chorus: " We could slip away, wouldn't that be better/Me with nothing to say, and you in your autumn sweater."

In "Damage" Ira sings about meeting an old crush on a Saturday night. "I used to think about you all the time, I would think about you all the time/Now it just feels weird, that there you are/ The damage is done." There are no Dylanesque insults, jokes, or wordplay to embellish the scene. Most songs need a little something else to keep them interesting but here simplicity works. The music deserves much of the credit for that. The songs are built on simple sweet pop melodies accompanied by distorted guitar, catchy thick bass lines, and various drones. Think Jesus & Mary Chain's "Psychocandy" with more than just treble.

I can't end this without mentioning the final track, "My Little Corner of the World." This is a cover of a song originally sung by "former beauty queen, orange juice pitchwoman, and anti-gay advocate Anita Bryant," as the All Music Guide puts it. Well I didn't know that when I first heard it, and now that I do know I'm glad Yo La Tengo rescued the song from obscure infamy because it's a great tune. In her quiet but appealing voice, Georgia sings "Come along with me to my little corner of the world/Dream a little dream in my little corner of the world/You'll soon forget that there's any other place/Tonight, my love, we'll share a sweet embrace." Since elementary school I've been day dreaming about a girl approaching me and saying just this. And then we get married and live forever in bliss. What? I told you I was a romantic.

So the album will annoy some. The singing isn't much above the "Grateful Dead" we-sang-because-we-were-there level. There is some free jazz/Velvets inspired instrumental noise. The ending track may threaten your masculinity. But don't call them pretentious. This is real, honest emotion. And after reading all the lyrics again and humming the songs in my head I wish I'd put this higher on my list of 90's albums. Ah, well. What's a number when you've got romantic daydreaming to do...


Herr Zrbo said...

Number 5 of what?? OOOHHHH, we're back on track now!

Little Earl said...

Actually I think we're on Number 6.

Little Earl said...

I'm glad you picked this album because it although it didn't make my list, it's great and deserved to be on somebody's. I used to fault Yo La Tengo for their perennial mellowness and lack of ambition, but now I realize that they simply fit a certain mood and if I'm looking for grand gestures I should go ahead and listen to someone else. This is sort of their "Rain Dogs," in that although they have other strong albums, for some reason it all came together perfectly on this one: the noise jams, the obscure cover versions, the feedback-drenched three-minute singles, and so on. It really is one of those "sit in your room late at night with the lights off" kind of albums. I think that's the only proper way to listen to "Shadows," actually.

yoggoth said...

I still find it very amusing that a band with such a long history and so many albums released can be faulted for "lack of ambition." No grand gestures? I find honest expression of emotional sentiment to be grander than a lot of other subjects in rock.

I will agree with the second part of your comment though, it really did all come together on this album. I love other Yo La Tengo albums too, but I recognize that that crosses over into fan territory and is harder to justify critically. I'd recommend them all to indie rock fans, but probably would expect that most others wouldn't think much of them.

Curiously, I think of this album as a warm Summer's day, driving around in my car album rather than a late night dozer.