2002: Yo La Tengo: The Sounds of the Sounds of Science

Yo La Tengo are like the radio for many people: a constant companionable stream of distortion and static that throws up gems as frequently as they provide interludes of background music. The process of sound for them has always seemed to lead to songs as naturally as it leads away from them — not forcing a choice between one or the other. I’ve always thought that songs for Yo La Tengo were like motels or picnic sites. They were places where Ira and Co. would uncork flasks and thermos’ and settle with some plain conversation. At the time The Sounds of the Sounds of Science was released Yo La Tengo were in the middle of a particularly long diversion in favor of more muted, instrumental pieces, beginning with And Then Nothing Turning Itself Inside Out. Fans were worried, but they shouldn’t have been. YLT later returned with some cacophonous punishment on I am Not Afraid of You and I will Beat Your Ass. Since then, they have done quite a few soundtracks, which they collected on They Shoot We Score (2008), but The Sounds of the Sounds of Science was the first soundtrack they fully scored.

The films that Yo La Tengo scored on Sounds of Science were made by the controversial documentary maker Jean Painlevé. Painlevé’s films from the 20s onwards were mostly about undersea flora and fauna. However these films, normally the property of science’s exposition, were not dissections of behavior in Jean Painlevé’s hands, but abstract, surreal cinematography about undersea society, presented in a way that some criticized as anthropomorphizing or focusing on the aesthetic rather than the functional patterns of the habits of undersea creatures.

With a YLT soundtrack sea-life does not look alien, but as restless and comic as human life in a coffee shop setting. “Shrimp Stories” in particular is pure YLT comedy. Besides being a particularly good example of a typical YLT screwball jazz track, it also seems to anthropomorphize shrimp-life, as if it were a loose ‘n’ baggy Sesame Street kind of world. It reminded me that the reason we anthropomorphize the lives of other creatures is not necessarily to impose our perspective, but sometimes to remind ourselves that we’re creatures too.
The only unfortunate thing is that Yo La Tengo without the conversation can be a bit plodding. But there’s something about this trek through the lives of sea creatures that, when accompanied by the visuals, is very “sympathique” — the French word for ‘friendly’ — which, for this English speaker, connotes a kind of laid-back sympathy between creatures that Yo La Tengo can aptly describe.


There’s a lot of good music out there, and it’s not all being released this year. With DeLorean, we aim to rediscover overlooked artists and genres, to listen to music historically and contextually, to underscore the fluidity of music. While we will cover reissues here, our focus will be on music that’s not being pushed by a PR firm.

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