Yo La Tengo, Sheas Performing Arts Center, Buffalo, NY- 7/11
It wasn't until drummer/percussionist Georgia Hubley shifted from behind her kit to join bassist James McNew at keyboards during French filmmaker Jean Painleve's uber-short underwater movie, “Liquid Crystals,” that Yo La Tengo's supreme marriage of audio and visual elements truly took a turn for the weird. “Crystals,” one-eighth of Painleve's collection of ambitious films, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, featuring New Jersey’s indie darlings’ ambient soundscapes, shook up a sleepy Sheas crowd by employing standard Yo La Tengo tactics massive, cacophonous blasts of squealing distortion and amplifier feedback courtesy of head-thrashing guitarist Ira Kaplan. Until the trio explored these Warholian gestures visually, “Crystals” called to mind the swirling, psychedelic color patterns the Velvet Underground provided ample audio for circa New York City in the 1960s its soft, cascading melodic arrangements lulled more than a few members of the thinly-numbered crowd to sleep. Literally. And, sadly, many of the conscious scattered towards the doors during the short breaks between films.
Upon re-entering the world of sea horses and crustaceans, more surrealistic black-and-white Painleve musings (“How Some Jellyfish are Born”) evoked shimmering, minimalistic impressions from Kaplan's delicate fingerpicking and meandering McNew/Hubley rhythms. For the remainder of the band's 78-minute set, these instrumental adventures skipped right over any sort of verse-chorus-verse and dipped directly into valleys of sonic splintering.
It was only when the band members were paired with their natural instruments (Kaplan and McNew added plenty of keyboard and egg shaker rhythms throughout the night) when they launched into the tightest groove of the evening one of Sounds’ only color films, “The Love Life of the Octopus.” The screen projected creaky, off-centered footage of octopuses getting’ busy while Hubley picked up time, adding much appreciated cowbell fills between rolling floor tom progressions.
And once the old projector flung its last “Fin” (French for “The End”) onto the screen and the band’s final notes dissipated into the vast expanse of the room, Kaplan extended his genuine appreciation, thanking the crowd and complementing the beauty of the 19th century theater. Given the circumstances, the guitarist revealed true sincerity. That’s not easy to find in popular music these days.
Unfortunately, many folks who made the trip out to Sheas never got to see it.