Yo La Tengo

Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs: 1985-2003

(Matador; 2005)

By Matt Stephens | 19 September 2005

Here is everything I knew about Yo La Tengo as of about a week ago:

They are a three-piece group from somewhere in Jersey. They play classicist pop music with noise and shoegaze overtones, and apparently sound quite a bit like the Velvet Underground at times. They all dress, apparently, like librarians. One of their members used to be a music journalist. Also, I think someone once told me they are all Jewish.

You see, despite my helpless thirst for nerdy, obscure pop music, Yo La Tengo just happened to be one of those bands that, for whatever reason, slipped through the cracks of my musical education, one that I’d always read about but never really listened to. So happening upon a copy of Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs, the new 3-disc (including one of outtakes and rarities) retrospective spanning their two decades together, I figured this was as good a time as any to get myself up to speed.

Prisoners collects 26 of the band’s best songs, from 1986’s Ride the Tiger right up to 2003’s Summer Sun, and disperses them non-chronologically throughout the two discs. Immediately, the range of Yo La Tengo’s influences impresses—hearing Sonic Youth, My Bloody Valentine, Springsteen, The VU’s and virtually every early-‘80s college rock band imaginable colliding this effortlessly is really something to behold, even if it only affirms the band’s uber-nerd reputation to an initiate such as myself. It doesn’t end with those, either; when my dad overheard “Stockholm Syndrome,” he told me to turn it off because he’d “just listened to After the Gold Rush this afternoon.”

But surfeit of influences aside, Yo La Tengo sound like no one but themselves most of the time, which, at least as it’s evidenced here, is a marvellous thing. With a good half of the songs here, I feel like I’m unearthing real classics—songs like “Sugarcube,” “Tom Courtenay,” “Season of the Shark,” and “Upside-Down” all carry that unmistakable air of genius that makes them sound like they were pulled out of nowhere. The sequencing reinforces the timelessness of the band’s work—after two or three listens without the liner notes in hand, I started trying to guess the year of each song’s release as I listened to it, with alarmingly poor accuracy. In the same way Guided By Voices’ excellent best-of sounded like one big, great, coherent album, Prisoners of Love flows from start to finish without ever sounding like compilation, which is less a credit to the song selections than it is to (I can only assume) the consistency and singularity of the band’s catalogue.

Bonus disc A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities is available in a special edition, and, if my newbie reaction to it is any indication, will do well to satiate long-time fans. I almost prefer the stripped down acoustic version of “Tom Courtenay” to the original, and vibrant instrumentals like “Stay Away From Heaven” and “Blue-Green Arrow” show a virtuostic side to the band the compilation doesn’t really cover. There are a few missteps, like Kevin Shield’s ghastly butchering of “Autumn Sweater,” but that’s half the allure of these kinds of collections, and this one is still sturdier than most.

In all, Prisoners of Love is about as good as a best-of could be for someone like myself. It offers a remarkable cross-section of Yo La Tengo’s numerous musical personas, and feels like a compilation made to introduce new fans to the band rather than satisfy those who’ve got all the records, anyway. It’s compulsively listenable, staggeringly diverse and even a lot of fun. Best of all, I think it’s made me a fan.