Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One - Classic Albums - Reviews - Soundblab

Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

by Mark Moody Rating:10 Release Date:1997-04-22
Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One

As I have mentioned on this site before, some of my best live music memories come from a few too brief years in Washington, D.C., in the early nineties.  I caught a lot of great bands in their formative stages back then, but one night, in particular, stands out.  Yo La Tengo’s Painful was already one of my favorite albums (and still to this day my go-to for an hour-long late night drive), but catching them in the tiny 9:30 Club was life-altering. 

Seeing Ira Kaplan going ape-shit crazy on guitar and organ at the same time on a tiny stage with wife Georgia Hubley and James McNew somehow keeping up was mind-blowing.  My poor wife thought otherwise cowering in the back of the club and the band name alone still strikes fear in her eyes.  The sense that Kaplan's AceTone organ, along with his head, might come crashing to the ground probably didn't help with the sense of dread that something could go horribly wrong at any moment. 

Deservedly, Yo La Tengo should strike fear in the hearts of all comers.  With an uncanny encyclopedic knowledge of obscure bands from which to plunder covers and a non-plussed approach to tackle any style of music, they are a quietly formidable opponent.  Nowhere was this more evident than on 1997’s embarrassingly rich cornucopia of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.  On no less than sixteen tracks spread out over an hour, YLT shows, to paraphrase a later album title, that they are not afraid of you and they will beat your band’s ass.  They are the last card you would want to draw in a battle of the bands showdown.  Your band’s piano recital inner child plunks through ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’, while theirs takes ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and turns it inside out into a calypso-tinged free jazz workout before shrugging their shoulders and ambling off stage to the snack table.  No one likes the smart ass upstart, but when the goods are delivered you have no choice but to shake their hand.

After a few lineup changes and a handful of different approaches, including the “we’re too cool” Fakebook covers album, it appeared that YLT had settled into something of a trance-like groove with Painful and Electr-o-pura.  Those albums may have been shot through with bursts of feedback and some stylistic tweaks here and there, but it seemed the band had found their niche.  Nothing there could have prepped the listener for what was to come next.  I remember hearing ‘Autumn Sweater’ before the whole of I Can Hear the Heart came out and thinking that sounds a lot different, but has a pretty friggin’ cool vibe about it.  It turns out the entire album was full of turns like that.  Not exactly sounding like you expected, but instantly likable nonetheless.

For fans of the prior two albums there were certainly continuations of that sound in tracks like ‘Damage’, the brilliant ‘Deeper Into Movies’(where Hubley’s patented bash is not to be outdone by the squall), and what seems a road map for the band in general on ‘We’re An American Band’.  The song goes from sugary sweet to caustically sour while somehow making you like it.  But just about everywhere else, the album’s style is defined by not having one.  It truly is about a smart as a whip collective showing off their myriad talents.  If you don’t believe it, just have a listen to ‘Stockholm Syndrome’ where they rub your nose in the fact that McNew can write and sing as well and do a pretty darn good job at it.  They do throw those clamoring for safety a lifeline in the fuzzed out single, ‘Sugarcube’, which succeeds the similar ‘Tom Courtenay’ from Electr-o-pura and precedes their next album’s ‘Cherry Chapstick’.  

But if a band you can certainly take seriously is allowed to have their moments of fun, there are plenty here to be had.  The bass and drum workout of the slyly titled ‘Moby Octopad’, with its “ba ba badda ba” chorus, Kaplan’s falsetto, and wonky piano notes, makes for a hoot of a listen.  On separate turns Kaplan gives a doo-wop backing to Hubley on the sunny bossa nova flavored ‘Center of Gravity’ and she returns the favor on ‘One PM Again’ that sounds a countrified slowed down take on the same melody.  

The Jesus and Mary Chain meets the Beach Boys ‘Little Honda’ is a scorching cover that gives way to the summer breeze of the ambient ‘Green Arrow’, replete with harmonizing crickets (these little guys must be the most recorded critters out there).  Hubley’s sweetly whispered ‘Shadows’ is all heart and is colored by a woeful sounding trumpet of all things played by Lambchop local Jonathan Marx.  Listening to the ten minute ‘Spec Bebop’ may be a bit of a chore, not quite as lovable as ‘Blue Line Swinger’, but where most albums would end there is still more music.  Wading through ‘Spec Bebop’ does get you to the blueprint of ‘American Band’ and Hubley’s croonful cover of ‘My Little Corner of the World’ to send you home with toes a tapping.

I Can Hear the Heart certainly fits the mold of “they don’t make ‘em like that anymore”.  Both the band and all that have followed haven’t flitted all over the stylistic map with not a misstep quite like this.  Most band’s greatest hits albums don’t have this much stylistic variety in one package.  It’s impossible not to get caught up in the joy the band had to have experienced in the simple act of making music together.  Their air of confidence keeps all the seemingly disparate parts from not only not falling apart but somehow making it feel they were meant to be cobbled together.  And if there’s a slight whiff of musical superiority about the proceedings, well it’s not Yo La Tengo’s fault that your band isn’t as good as theirs now is it?

       

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