Yo La Tengo builds a musical landscape to Jean Painleve’s underwater films

Calling Yo La Tengo composers is a paradox. In essence, the band has written, composed, and performed professionally for many years now. But from a classical sense, we can take the term composer to a different level.

On The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, Yo La Tengo composed and scored nine instrumentals to accompany eight of French filmmaker Jean Painleve’s rare underwater documentary shorts.

According to a Rolling Stone interview with the band, they had not heard of Painleve prior to this project. It was the San Francisco International Film Festival that gave them an opportunity to build a soundscape to these surrealist-like pieces.

Painleve was a devout fan of the “recording of reality”. A student of biology and inspired by the Surrealist Movement—although not claiming to be a Surrealist himself—he followed the likes of Guillaume Apollinaire and claimed that “cinema is a creator of a surreal life.” By using slow motion, accelerated speed and blur effects, Painleve took to the underwater world to capture the aquatic life. He ended up directing more than two hundred science in nature films in the early 1900s.

Yo La Tengo – Sea Urchins

Jim Derogatis describes Yo La Tengo as a band that “has never stopped changing and evolving”, and this album helps accentuate that hypothesis. This album is a unique choice. Rather than selecting some random ambient electronic artist to record some blurbs and hums they found a higher purpose.

Call it a sidetrack between And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Summer Sun, Yo La Tengo presents a collage of sound and motion within the construct of environment. It is the opposite of how the band has worked in the past and continues to this day. Kaplan said in the same Rolling Stone article is that with The Sounds of the Sound of Science, they would try to “match the sound with the action.”

A great example of this and my favorite on the album comes early on with “Sea Urchins.” The song starts out with a normal rock construct, but about four minutes in, the song turns into this mystic transformation of soft reverb, sleepy-eyed beats, and hypnotic bass lines that is inspired by the late night surf ballads of the ‘60s. Yo La Tengo has fully convinced me that this is what life underwater sounds like. You can close your eyes and feel the motion of uncontrolled movement and swaying landscapes on the seafloor.

Yo La Tengo – The Love Life of An Octopus

And you don’t need Painleve’s documentaries to get a strong sense as to what these songs are trying to do. The way Ira Kaplan and James McNew utilize the guitars is modest. A song like “Sea Horse” is done with enough meandering to build intrigue but keep every one of these songs within perspective.

“Hyas and Stenorhynchus,” both from the crab family, gives a more space rock approach with a baseline that is uncertain to mimic the inconsistency in movement of the crab. The band moves on to the sounds of shrimps and conception of jellyfish, an amusing factor pairing the mating habits of jellyfish with music. “Liquid Crystals” is a smattering of no wave and free jazz inspired construction filled with chaos and spontaneous order.

“The Love Life Of The Octopus” is a saucy tale. I could describe their performance with words like repetitious and driving with accentuated jolts of feedback. It ends with a post-coital glow that will make you think, “Oh yeah. That octopus had a good time.”

Even though a diversion in Yo La Tengo’s career, the album is nothing more than captivating.

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