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

Evan Rytlewski

For longtime fans, this Yo La Tengo retrospective offers an optional third-disc of rarities and outtakes, and for uninitiated listeners, it's the perfect introduction to one of indie-rock's most inviting -- and, sadly, most stigmatized -- bands.

Yo La Tengo

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

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2005-03-22
UK Release Date: 2005-03-21
Amazon affiliate

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.





'Everything's Gonna Be Okay' Is  Better Than Okay

The first season of Freeform's Everything's Gonna Be Okay is a funny, big-hearted love letter to family.


Jordan Rakei Breathes New Life Into Soul Music

Jordan Rakei is a restless artistic spirit who brings R&B, jazz, hip-hop, and pop craft into his sumptuous, warm music. Rakei discusses his latest album and new music he's working on that will sound completely different from everything he's done so far.


Country Music's John Anderson Counts the 'Years'

John Anderson, who continues to possess one of country music's all-time great voices, contemplates life, love, mortality, and resilience on Years.


Rory Block's 'Prove It on Me' Pays Tribute to Women's Blues

The songs on Rory Block's Prove It on Me express the strength of female artists despite their circumstances as second class citizens in both the musical world and larger American society.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 3, Echo & the Bunnymen to Lizzy Mercier Descloux

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part three with Echo & the Bunnymen, Cabaret Voltaire, Pere Ubu and more.


Wendy Carlos: Musical Pioneer, Reluctant Icon

Amanda Sewell's vastly informative new biography on musical trailblazer Wendy Carlos is both reverent and honest.


British Folk Duo Orpine Share Blissful New Song "Two Rivers" (premiere)

Orpine's "Two Rivers" is a gently undulating, understated folk song that provides a welcome reminder of the enduring majesty of nature.


Blesson Roy Gets "In Tune With the Moon" (premiere)

Terry Borden was a member of slowcore pioneers Idaho and a member of Pete Yorn's band. Now he readies the debut of Blesson Roy and shares "In Tune With the Moon".


In 'Wandering Dixie', Discovering the Jewish South Is Part of Discovering Self

Sue Eisenfeld's Wandering Dixie is not only a collection of dispatches from the lost Jewish South but also a journey of self-discovery.


Bill Withers and the Curse of the Black Genius

"Lean on Me" singer-songwriter Bill Withers was the voice of morality in an industry without honor. It's amazing he lasted this long.


Jeff Baena Explores the Intensity of Mental Illness in His Mystery, 'Horse Girl'

Co-writer and star Alison Brie's unreliable narrator in Jeff Baena's Horse Girl makes for a compelling story about spiraling into mental illness.


Pokey LaFarge Hits 'Rock Bottom' on His Way Up

Americana's Pokey LaFarge performs music in front of an audience as a way of conquering his personal demons on Rock Bottom.


Joni Mitchell's 'Shine' Is More Timely and Apt Than Ever

Joni Mitchell's 2007 eco-nightmare opus, Shine is more timely and apt than ever, and it's out on vinyl for the first time.


'Live at Carnegie Hall' Captures Bill Withers at His Grittiest and Most Introspective

Bill Withers' Live at Carnegie Hall manages to feel both exceptionally funky and like a new level of grown-up pop music for its time.


Dual Identities and the Iranian Diaspora: Sepehr Debuts 'Shaytoon'

Electronic producer Sepehr discusses his debut album releasing Friday, sparing no detail on life in the Iranian diaspora, the experiences of being raised by ABBA-loving Persian rug traders, and the illegal music stores that still litter modern Iran.


From the Enterprise to the Discovery: The Decline and Fall of Utopian Technology and the Liberal Dream

The technology and liberalism of recent series such as Star Trek: Discovery, Star Trek: Picard, and the latest Doctor Who series have more in common with Harry Potter's childish wand-waving than Gene Roddenberry's original techno-utopian dream.


The 50 Best Post-Punk Albums Ever: Part 2, The B-52's to Magazine

This week we are celebrating the best post-punk albums of all-time and today we have part two with the Cure, Mission of Burma, the B-52's and more.


Emily Keener's "Boats" Examines Our Most Treasured Relationships (premiere)

Folk artist Emily Keener's "Boats" offers a warm look back on the road traveled so far—a heartening reflection for our troubled times.


Paul Weller - "Earth Beat" (Singles Going Steady)

Paul Weller's singular modes as a soul man, guitar hero, and techno devotee converge into a blissful jam about hope for the earth on "Earth Beat".


On Point and Click Adventure Games with Creator Joel Staaf Hästö

Point and click adventure games, says Kathy Rain and Whispers of a Machine creator Joel Staaf Hästö, hit a "sweet spot" between puzzles that exercise logical thinking and stories that stimulate emotions.

Collapse Expand Reviews
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.