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Published: 2005/05/26
by Jesse Jarnow

Yo La Tengo, Rose Theater, NYC- 5/18

NYC ROLL-TOP: The Life Aquatic with James McNew

Besides its programming, I’m not exactly sure where the Rose Theater gets off describing itself as "at Lincoln Center" and putting a picture of that arts complex on its tickets, when the venue is clearly housed on the fifth floor of a high rise — above a shopping mall — overlooking Columbus Circle at the southwest corner of Central Park. Meh. So it goes. It — and the glass-walled Allen Room — are both fine places to see shows (that is, if you can handle the ticket price and the subscribers, who are a tough and/or bored crowd). Besides, if David Byrne — pop star turned hotshot art-crit blogger — is there, wandering the plush, modern lobby in a smart green blazer, bicycle helmet dangling coolly from his backpack, you know it must be the place, that weird rupture where art really does transcend. No late seating.

It was also a suitably dignified locale for the most recent airing of Yo La Tengo’s gorgeous Sounds of Science project, in which the venerable Hoboken trio provide instrumental scores for a series of underwater nature documentaries by French filmmaker Jean PainlevFirst performed in 2001, the Tengos have dusted it off periodically since then, with several more performances scheduled for this spring and summer. The films — made between 1927 and 1972 — are in both black and white and rich Technicolor, and are far weirder than any manner of aquatic life that Steve Zissou (or Wes Anderson, for that matter) could dream up. In front of Painlev camera, jellyfish morph and ooze and split (1960’s "How Some Jellyfish Are Born"), strange spike-balls creep across underwater surfaces (1954’s "Sea Urchins"), and creatures engage in asexual reproductive orgies (1964’s "Shrimp Stories").

If Disney’s contemporaneous nature documentaries — which invented the myth of the lemmings running to the sea — anthropomorphized animals into furry life lessons, their apparently human-like behavior often the product of swift editing and authoritative narration, then Painlev films are veritably science fiction. Watching baby octopi developing in utero (in time lapse) and sprouting en masse is downright weird — as happens during "The Love Life of the Octopus" — and, if Yo La Tengo happen to be playing their soundtrack to that, alternating organ notes over muted drums languidly curling towards dreamy Sonic Youth chord-clouds, then life under the sea surface might as well be somewhere near Saturn.

Every band has a different sense of what it means to be "ambient," and the Sounds of Science program (and accompanying Sounds of the Sounds of Science album) are the purest expression of Yo La Tengo’s own. With a nod towards classic dub productions, nearly all of the band’s pieces were layered in several miles of reverb, their indie roots glimpsed somewhere in the gloom. Beneath the shimmering sludge layers of "Octopus," one could hear chunky garage rhythms in Ira Kaplan’s guitar. In the performance-opening "Hyas and Stenorinchus," one could make out vaguely country licks, like a lone pedal steel track lifted from Gram Parsons’ Grievous Angel and dropped in the middle of a Brian Eno recording.

Though the soundtrack, which the twenty-year old band self-released in 2002, contains probably their most wide-open music to date, live, it opened up even further — tempos and chords shifting at the mercy of seahorses and shrimp. The band remained invisible through the performance, standing in the dark just beneath the movie screen — which isn’t to say absent, or even gentrified by their surroundings. Kaplan, bassist James McNew, and drummer Georgia Hubley switched instruments, set up drones, and made music as personal as anything they’ve ever done. During "Liquid Crystals," as psychedelic mutations of, um, I think, liquid crystals danced on screen, Kaplan butted his guitar up against his amp for a good, old-fashioned Hoboken feedback session. A subscriber (or, perhaps, just a curious adult) shielded his ears in defense. Later, several walked out — though it was more likely to make trains than as an expression of criticism. No late seating at Lincoln Center’s high capitalist temple to the Arts, apparently, but you can go back to Long Island whenever you want.

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