I have to admit, I never really got Yo La Tengo until I heard them at last year's July 4th blowout at Battery Park. Actually, I wasn't even in Battery Park (the line was too long and I got turned away) -- I was listening from the edge of the fence, near the back of the lawn, what felt like miles from the stage. I could barely hear them, let alone see them, and they still blew me away. Needless to say, I showed up early for their Prospect Park hit.
However, this year's park performance was not your standard Yo La gig. The band reprised a project called "The Sounds of Science," originally performed at the San Fransisco Film Fest back in 2001 -- instrumentals written to accompany the stunning oceanographical films of Jean Painlevé. They set up on the ground in front of the Prospect Park bandshell stage, to better make room for the 50-foot-tall screen onto which Painlevé's brilliant, whimsical, surreal acquatic documentaries were projected.
Yo La have documented "The Sounds of Silence" on CD, but I'd not hear the music until this show, and it was every bit as revelatory and awe-inspring as Painlevé's cinematography. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew wove a hypnotic tapestry of minimalist textures, spiky noise-rock, warm analog synth tweetering, long-arc development and, as always, heartfelt lyricism.
I'm often skeptical of these sorts of "live music+film" projects, because if the visuals are halfway compelling then the music usually has to fight incredibly hard to register at all, and when it does, tends to feel more like an intrusion than an accompaniment. This was something that kept gnawing at the back of my mind even during mostly successful film projects like Dave Douglas's Keystone, or The Books' "found video" collages. But Yo La Tengo were able to manage the ebb and flow of music and film far better than anyone else I've seen -- while your attention may be momentarily seized by, for instance, the sight of thousands of tiny octopuses bursting from their eggs, the band gives you plenty of time to take it all in, but then manages to draw you back into the music at just the right moment.
The multi-dimensional music that accompanied "The Love Life of the Octopus" (downloadable gratis here) was hands-down the most thrilling piece of the night, but the more slowly-evolving textural pieces that accompanied films like "How Some Jellyfish Are Born" and "The Sea Horse" were just as rewarding. But I must say, I was very glad to be up front for this show -- so much of the music hinged on nuances that were barely audible even up close, and I'm not sure how much of it carried past the first few rows. Regardless, this gig was easily the most satisfying pairing of film and live music I've ever seen/heard. Now, if only The Sounds of Science were available on DVD...
More picutres below the fold...
John Schaefer (of Soundcheck) makes the introductions:
Obligatory gear pig shots:
Raising the screen: