Yo La Tengo CD review [Matador]

Music Reviews
Yo La Tengo CD review [Matador]
Feb 19, 2002, 23:19


I think even Yo La Tengo are bored with being Yo La Tengo. For years they've erred on the side of understatement and tastefulness and made a fistful of great records by hedging their bets. They're like the quarterback with no mobility and a touchy arm that reaches the Super Bowl: when they are in the spotlight, they rarely make mistakes. But their recent artistic stagnation goes past treading water. It's more like they're treading wet cement, as a recent live show made all too clear.

To their credit, they're trying to push their comfort zone out a few inches. They've collaborated with NYC's fearless pure improvisers Test on a single, had drummer Susie Ibarra guest on stage and on records, and generally shown their knowledge of post Ornette free jazz to be exquisite. But even though they navigated a decent version of Sun Ra's “Rocket #9,” the Nuclear War EP still has to qualify as a shock cover. And that's saying something these days when country bands play Ramones songs, dance bands interpret Steve Reich, and punk bands rework show tunes.

Version one of four on the EP has a bouncy, Lambert, Hendricks & Ross feel to it, which is off-putting. Their light touch doesn't either counter the grittiness of the apocalyptic imagery in a pleasing way, and the choruses of “Motherfucker” and “Kiss your ass goodbye,” would sound like little kids swearing. Except, wait! They have real little kids swearing on version two, which really fries my bacon, to quote my ma. As someone who experienced the old saw “War's not healthy for children or other living things” first hand, putting the kids on there seems obvious and stale. And, what the hell, call me a curmudgeon, but why even bother to grow up if you get to say “Motherfucker” when you're still in grade school? Call child protection services! The marvelous members of Test pop in for version three—giving some flavor of the end times paranoia that permeates so much of Ra's music. But Test's superior skills don't really mesh with YLT's more simple skills. The version at the end is the shortest, and the most interesting. There Mike Ladd lovingly fucks with the rhythms giving a bubbling but sinister groove that wouldn't be out of place on NYC's 99 Records label. But those damn kids are still there, and they bother me, so no love from this quarter.

I always thought that “Nuclear War” was a song that was so quintessentially Sun Ra it was in conceivable anyone could cover it. Even after four loving, reverent, and well intentioned takes on the song (and seeing an interminable live version recently), my original feeling still stands. Only for completists, or folks who have no other gateway into the world of free jazz. [Matador]

-Cecile Cloutier

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