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Yo La Tengo – The Sounds of the Sounds of Science

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Egon
Release date: 2002

I have seen Fritz Lang’s Metropolis twice on the big screen, each time with live musical accompaniment from a local band. The movie has always lent itself to this treatment, and not only because the original score is lost to time. It is so odd, so borderline-plotless, and so hallucinatory that any number of musical styles might fit it perfectly (memorably, in 1984, Giorgio Moroder cut a version of the film with a soundtrack by Pat Benetar and Adam Ant, among other early-80’s rockers). Re-soundtracking the film has since become a trend. Fritz Lang might object to some of the music people have set his movie to, but he would almost certainly be delighted to see it living and breathing, creating its own artistic dialogue, 80 years after its making. Art that moves people to make art is the very best kind.

The organizers of the San Francisco Film Festival in 2001 had some similarly evocative and open-ended footage on their hands – the arty undersea documentaries of Jean Painlevé. Beginning as early as the thirties, Painlevé filmed undersea life in a way that earned him the respect of such visionaries as Sergei Eisenstein and Luis Buñuel, equal parts humanism and surrealism. Declaring that “science is fiction,” Painlevé invented the animal-documentary-as-pure-entertainment form long before Jacques Cousteau, and took his photography to a bizarre, ecstatic level, doing for the shrimp what Man Ray had done for the human. The result is absolutely legendary footage that has rarely been shown anywhere. And so, matching quality with quality, vision with vision, the San Francisco Film Festival asked Yo La Tengo to write a score for each of the eight films they would show.

I have not seen these movies – like I said, they’re hard to come by, and I do not live in San Francisco. But thanks to Yo La Tengo and their careful studio performances of these pieces, I do feel I know them somewhat. They have created a score that is part spacey ambience, part animal comedy, part undersea adventure, and yet bearing their signature sound. It’s a case of art begetting art, of one artist speaking to others through many dusty years, in a language that is far from outdated. It’s a lovely thing to behold.

Each song here is a direct analog to one of Painlevé’s films, each bearing their title. While “The Sea Horse” has a quick and bouncy movement to it – perhaps the kind of undersea movement that only sea horses are capable of – “Hyas and Stenorhynchus” moves with a slow, spooky, ten-legged creep, and “Shrimp Stories” is as playful as it is tasty. Other tracks, like “The Love Life of the Octopus” or the captivating opener “Sea Urchins” move in stages, capturing more than one mood of a creature. The loping bass lines of Mike Lewis draw you in, and the familiar complexities of drummer Georgia Hubley lay groundwork for yet more layers of organ, spare guitar, and all manner of feedback and tremolo. Even in the record’s more abstract moments (“Liquid Crystals”) the weird guitar noise sprawls over purposeful control. The album of course has no vocals, but they will not be missed. Yo La Tengo have built their reputation not as great singers, but as great songwriters and musicians, and this is a showcase for their talents.

I hope to soon be able to rent a video of these films, and if the soundrack isn’t this album, I intend to turn the sound down and play it while I watch the movies, synching them up as best I can. I hear The Dark Side of the Moon and The Wizard of Oz go together nicely, but I’ve never tried it. Sounds like a wacky hippie thing, which I am by nature averse to. But I will tell you this – Swervedriver and Metropolis work fantastically well together. Try it.

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