Yo La Tengo need an image makeover. For many—especially those who haven’t actually heard them—the Hoboken, New Jersey trio is the embodiment of indie-rock elitism. They cover obscure songs. They provide the soundtrack to foreign documentaries. They have a dry, intellectual sense of humor. Their fans are, stereotypically at least, bespectacled record-store clerks and music critics who do as much as possible to keep the band an underground phenomenon, describing their music in terms that unacquainted listeners might find either unappealing (noise-rock) or foreign (shoegazer).
And so you can’t blame people unfamiliar with Yo La Tengo for assuming the band’s music is difficult or pretentious, even if this assessment couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, of all the founding indie-rock groups, their sound is one of the warmest and most inviting. Although their affinity for guitar feedback and organ drone has earned them the most attention, at their core they’re a band that sings primarily in coos and whispers, and a has knack for crafting nearly flawless pop songs.
Hopefully, the group’s retrospective should go someway toward setting the record straight. The two-disc Prisoners of Love set is the perfect introduction for any potential fans who may have been scared away by the band’s unfair reputation, or even just overwhelmed by the sheer size of their discography. Prisoners finds the balance between winning over new listeners by including the band’s most infectious singles (“Tom Courtenay”, “Sugarcube”, “Autumn Sweater”), and appeasing fans with longtime favorites (the nine-minute anthem “Blue Line Swinger”). Yo La Tengo is a band that wears many hats, and every faction of their sound is showcased here: the ‘60s folk-rock throwbacks (“Stockholm Syndrome”, “The River of Water”); the fuzzed-out space rockers (“Shaker”, “From a Motel 6”); the cocky, Velvets-styled rock ‘n’ roll numbers (“Big Day Coming”, “Drug Test”); the moments of doe-eyed pop (“Did I Tell You”, “By The Time it Gets Dark”).
Like Yo La Tengo’s best albums, this retrospective plays like a mixtape that, although eclectic, is grounded in enough reoccurring motifs to make for a cohesive listen. No matter which genre the group tackles, they place a strong emphasis on repetition, tone, and texture. Georgia Hubley’s drums create understated, soothing patterns; James McNew’s bass pulsates hypnotically, occasionally mirroring a heartbeat; and Ira Kaplan’s guitar well, that’s the real wild card. Sometimes it buzzes, moans, and wails. Sometimes it’s acoustic. Sometimes it twangs. Sometimes it revs up like a struggling motorcycle engine. Sometimes it produces such blistering feedback that it could be challenging J Mascis’s, Kevin Shields’s, and Thurston Moore’s respective guitars to a drunken dual, perfectly confident in its ability to take them all on at the same time.
The other constant in their music is sentimentality—something which might surprise unacquainted listeners who associate Yo La Tengo too closely with the detachment prevalent in indie-rock culture. The band wasn’t being ironic when they christened this compilation Prisoners of Love (and the subtitle, A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs, is, for the record, meant to be a self-aware poke at their image); at their core, most of these songs really are simple reflections on love. “Our Way to Fall”, for instance, documents the feelings of vulnerability and uncertainty behind the “love at first sight” phenomenon. “I remember a summer’s day / I remember walking up to you / I remember my face turned red / And I remember staring at my feet”, Kaplan sings so timidly, it’s as if just recalling the exchange is enough to make him cower. It’s a delicate song, heartfelt without ever being too cutesy—no small feat, given that his wife (and the presumed subject of the song), Hubley, provides backing vocals.
The real draw for established fans will be Prisoners of Love‘s optional third disc of rarities and outtakes. There are some real gems here, like a couple of songs recorded for the soundtrack for a movie scene set in a German disco, an “Autumn Sweater” remix by Kevin Shields that’s every bit as good as it sounds, and delicate, acoustic versions “Decora” and “Tom Courtenay” (the latter replacing Kaplan’s vocals with Hubley’s.) For all but the die-hard fans, the bulk of this disk will be new, but completists will find much to grumble about. Of these 16 tracks, only five are totally unreleased, and only three of those are actual new songs; surely the Yo La Tengo vault must be fuller than this. Thankfully, the three truly new tracks are winners, especially “Pencil Test”, a 1996 outtake that plays like the soundtrack to a dream—only with Kaplan’s ringing guitar serving as the song’s alarm clock—and the 1999 outtake “Almost True”, an equally lush fusion of bossa nova and twee-pop.
Even if you’re checking out Prisoners of Love because you’ve never heard the band before, consider purchasing the three-disc version. In a way, those tossed-off demos, covers, and outtakes capture the band’s personality better than a meticulously crafted single ever could, and that’s what this band is all about—personality. They may start out as elusive, indie-rock enigmas, but once you start listening to them they’ll become like your old friends, Georgia, Ira, and James. They’re the gang you discuss music and watch The Simpsons with, and that couple that you’re rooting for to make it.