Review Summary: by your window in the sky
I have always had a certain fondness for Yo La Tengo, even before I had heard their music. At the time of the release of their 1997 masterpiece I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
, they had been quietly and consistently churning out great albums melding the various genres and styles that ruled the indie scene at one time or another. Indie pop, shoegaze, and folk-influenced indie rock were only a few of the genres found on their first few albums, and sure enough, in 2009, here they still are, proving themselves as one of the most consistent and effortlessly enjoyable indie bands out there. Coming from the practically scene-less Hoboken, New Jersey, it's not exactly a surprise the band have been comfortably genre-hopping with every release, yet, somehow, when I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
was released, it came as a shock to practically everyone who listened to it: never before had Yo La Tengo (or arguably any other band) completely and efficiently nailed every single genre they had the guts to try out. Spanning a potentially cumbersome 16 songs, the album swiftly hits high point after high point, showing that Yo La Tengo, a "shy" band at heart, could not, would not, be tamed.
With brief intro "Return to Hot Chicken", it's apparent from the beginning that the album is one made with a specific mood and tone in mind: the song's laid-back, hazy guitars and soft drum beat recall a kind of mellow, breezy disposition, one that manages to be held throughout the whole album. Second track "Moby Octopad" picks the pace up a bit, featuring a slick bassline borrowed from The Velvet Underground's epic "European Son". However groovy it is, though, even more impressive is the endearingly lopsided piano hook that is introduced halfway through, giving the song a distinctly unpolished finish. The piano line is just the first in a series of unrefined touches: bass notes thrillingly rub against each other in the bridge of "Sugarcube", guitar feedback reaches just past the point of comfort in "Damage" and 10-minute space-rocker "Spec Bebop", and on "Stockholm Syndrome", bassist James McNew seemingly barely gets through a song just in his vocal range.
With all of these musical inconsistencies, the answer as to why this enigmatic album is such an excellent and effortless listen lies in its brutal honesty. Georgia Hubley's "Shadows", a sparse, acoustic arrangement, is simply among the saddest songs ever written, ending on a note of harsh denial: "So until I truly believe / That your words convey what you mean / I wait in the shadows / I wait in the shadows / I don't mind the shadows". The song sets off a call-and-response trio of songs with extra emphasis on the lyrics, "Shadows" being followed by the aforementioned "Stockholm Syndrome" ("Another season, but the same old feelings / Another reason could be / I'm tired of aching, summer's what you make it / But I'll believe what I want to believe"), and ending on Ira Kaplan's organ-drenched "Autumn Sweater", seemingly a nod to wife and bandmate Hubley's love and loyalty with its "We could slip away" refrain.
Interspersed between the lyrically heavier songs, however, are significantly light-footed ones. Soon after "Autumn Sweater" fades out, a brilliant shoegaze rendition of the Beach Boys' "Little Honda" enters, ushering in a childish and nostalgic atmosphere that's gone almost as soon as it started. Shoegaze, a genre seemingly finished by the mid-'90s, is found elsewhere on the album, and presents the listeners with some of the best examples of the genre as a whole. "Sugarcube" is an excellent and deceptively simple pop song awash in a sea of guitar fuzz, but it's "Deeper into Movies" that provides the album's absolute high point: fading in with a simple guitar-skronk hook, the song envelopes the listener in absolute sonic bliss, the band sing-shouting its lyrics over the waves of guitar feedback, trying, to no avail, to make their lyrics audible. The song is an exhilarating musical experience, and one that begs to be undergone again and again.
On the other side of the spectrum, "Green Arrow" is one of the most calming pieces of music the band have ever put out, a subtly jazzy, near-perfect piece of chillout guitar ambiance, cricket noises and all. One of the most successful attempts of capturing the late-night vibe, it truly prevails as an excellent slice of tired-eyes mood music, one that was undeniably inspired by too many nights of driving and not enough sleep. After "Green Arrow" comes "One PM Again" (not, note, "One AM Again"), which keeps the calm atmosphere while subtly building up more of a musical structure, getting the album back on track after a wondrous, if unexpected, detour. The song itself is a brief, country-tinged piece of indie-pop, characterized by Ira Kaplan's gentle, monotone rumblings. Following "One PM Again" are "The Lie and How We Told It" and "Center of Gravity", both of which effortlessly and delightfully uphold the calm mood of the album, the former being an immaculate piece of drone-immersed indie pop, the latter being a swift left turn for the band, introducing a lovely morsel of tropical pop.
All of these calm ditties lead to what should be the album's centerpiece: the ten-minute psychedelic rocker "Spec Bebop". Sadly, the song feels like the biggest misstep on the album, stretching out one of the weaker musical concepts of the record to its breaking point. Circling through a series of drones, pieces of guitar feedback, and dissonant chords, the song's repetitive rhythm acts as its strangely uninteresting backbone, never opting for a climax but simply floating with a certain aloof quality. Those who have a huge amount of musical patience may find the track an intriguing exploration of space-rock, but many others will be simply bored by the track, finger tentatively on the "skip" button.
Still, Yo La Tengo's missteps seem like flashes of brilliance in a world of musical monotony, and, luckily, the song acts as an excellent segue into the album's "real" climax, the shoegaze track somewhat humorously titled "We're an American Band". The title is also somehow appropriate: Yo La Tengo, despite their name suggesting otherwise, are just about as "American" as a band can get, taking in the various aspects of their environment and conveying it through their music (which suggest that they take in a whole damn lot). The song features Ira Kaplan's best guitar work on the whole record; after pounding out pleasantly buzzing chords one after another, he launches into an illuminating solo that simply bests anything else done on the album. After the song climaxes, the lovely cover of anti-gay activist Anita Bryant's "My Little Corner of the World". Considering Bryant's background, the song could've been approached a number of ways, but none were more appropriate than the band's: Georgia Hubley gives the song a straightforward, honest attempt, and it works perfectly and beautifully.
In a way, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
is like a quiet musical revolution, one that takes small steps towards a greater aesthetic goal and may make some small fumbles along the way. The band's imperfections and idiosyncrasies are perfectly evident throughout the album's 17 songs, and the band makes no attempt to hide them. Therein lies the secret charm of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
: the album is imperfect, but its imperfections add a personal touch, letting the album take on a different meaning for each person who experiences it. In 1997, Yo La Tengo made a touching, indecisive, and brilliant album that is yet to be topped by just about anyone.