Throughout their long and prolific career (now over three decades as the current lineup), Yo La Tengo have never been strangers to soundtrack work. That lineage even extends back to Georgia Hubley coming from a family of revolutionary animators. While the trio’s original scores to films like Old Joy and Junebug are most well known, nothing is quite in the same stylistic realm as their first cinematic project, 2002’s The Sounds of the Sounds of Science. Recorded between studio albums (the band’s activities at the time included backing Ray Davies), the record was quietly reissued by the band earlier this year – so quiet in fact, that its very first vinyl pressing was initially just sold at the merch table with no announcement at a number of early 2023 gigs.
With a 78-minute runtime and only a single track not eclipsing the eight minutes, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science is an almost meditative aquatic soundscape created for a series of short films by avant-garde filmmaker Jean Painlevé. Specializing in underwater cinematography, the French director’s short films (ranging in dates from 1927-1982) were compiled by Criterion in a collection titled Science is Fiction, with eight of them receiving YLT scores to break the deep sea silence. Originally a concert affair, the band performed live scores at about a dozen n film festivals screenings. A Nashville studio came next, expanding upon the live edits to craft a proper soundtrack. If you happened to catch the band’s infamous “spin the wheel” tour, you might have even caught songs at a regular gig.
“A lot of it just seemed like abstract art, except with fish”, Ira Kaplan reflected in an interview with Criterion. “We love old instrumental film scores with themes rather than pop songs”. Painlevé’s 35mm films move like surrealist dream works: mesmerizing, natural psychedelic visual delights as much as ecological documentaries. It’s an analogue world of undersea exploration that predates Jacques Cousteau, one that’s an uncanny match for an inaugural set of fresh sounds. While the understated, gentler touches of the group’s previous album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out can be heard on the soft minimalism here, there are the mandatory swerves. “Liquid Crystals”, a colorized film lacking marine life, featured an unhinged guitar freakout of only the YLT variety, exploding over a microscopic view of crystals forming in vibrant colors, eerily reminiscent of a liquid light show.
“Sea Urchins” kicks off the score with a looping soft percussion shuffle that is quickly submerged in an aural aquatic ambiance, with a mid-song tempo change that recalls fellow ten minute instrumental “Spec Bebop.” With a lack of sampled field recordings or artificial water effects, the concept of aquatic sounding music might come on a more subjective, interpretive basis. Like Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom record or a twangy surf soundtrack, the vibe is fully captured here. The shortest cut “Shrimp Stories” comes closest to resembling a traditional Yo La Tengo track (if such a thing can be classified), with a barrage of bare sounding drums that fades into a crescendo recalling Electr-O-Pura‘s “Blue Line Swinger”.
Like any great soundtrack, Sounds is equally as captivating taken in just as a listening experience. While Yo La Tengo’s increasingly deep catalogue features a plethora of genre-bending instrumentals and long format pieces, these ambient soundscapes establish a singular mood that is ideal for situational listening. The more time is given, the more this release floats to the surface as one of the most unique and enduring of the whole YLT discography. Dive in headfirst. | m neeley