Sharps and Flats

Published May 28, 1997 7:00PM (EDT)

Yo La Tengo would like to tell you a thing or two about their record collection. A thing or two thousand, actually: The Hoboken, N.J., trio has filled nine albums (the earliest ones lovingly reissued on Matador last year) sifting through stacks of '60s AM pop, punk rock and experimental music, searching for that ever-elusive Perfect Sound. The results can be blissfully transcendent when they do stumble over it, as on 1993's "Painful," a magical and evocative blend of feedback-tempered pop. Not content to stay in one place very long, the band is still experimenting after 10 years, and "I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One" finds them broadening their reconnaissance -- folk, electronic and Latin music all find their way into the mix this time around. But unfortunately, the sounds leave them stranded in a series of musical cul-de-sacs.

"Let's not make any sudden moves," cautions singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan on "One PM Again," and he means it: Much of "Heart" is built on slow, loping beats and melodies, from the sensuous, bass-heavy rumble of "Moby Octopad" to the acoustic pop of "Stockholm Syndrome," whose '70s singer-songwriter lilt wouldn't sound out of place on an Eagles record. Not that they've lost their taste for straightforward rock -- the energetic "Sugarcube" and the noise-laden "Deeper into Movies" are as riveting as anything in their catalog -- but when they hang their beloved feedback on a cover of the Beach Boys' "Little Honda," you can tell that they offer it only as the hip style du jour from their bag of tricks.

For all of "Heart's" involving soundscapes, there's little going on under the hood; the band's embrace of slight pet sounds and sonic touches comes at the expense of quality songwriting. There are about four or five too many flimsy, off-the-cuff mood pieces -- like "Shadows," on which Georgia Hubley sings in her typically gorgeous manner, but the song's spare organ melody can't capture the lovelorn feel she's searching for. The absolute worst is "Spec Bebop," 10 minutes of self-indulgent knob-twiddling that's all texture and overtones, and it sinks the album like a rock. Only on "Damage," a quiet, soulful grumble from Kaplan, does the album turn the sense of solitude into something deep and engrossing. For a band that's prided itself on sharp musical craftsmanship, they've become altogether too crafty.

"I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One" does close wonderfully,
however, with a sweet version of "My Little Corner of the
World," which Hubley sings with an innocence and depth more
than a little reminiscent of the Velvet Underground's "After
Hours." In spite of its '60s bubble-gum simplicity, it goes over
really well. With Yo La Tengo happily sucked back into their
cloister of pop history, "My Little Corner of the World" is a
beautiful and hopeful end to an album filled with some impressive
and engaging noises, but sadly little more.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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