Prisoners of Love
Yo La Tengo fans have got it made. Not only has the Hoboken, NJ, trio maintained a consistent, stable lineup over the last decade, they've managed to sustain a steady learning curve throughout: growing, changing, and adapting while never losing their fundamental Yo La Tengo-ness.
Plus they release an assload of material.
The latest installment is a scintillating (their word and mine) two-disc set of greatest hits (Prisoners of Love: A Smatttering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003), early editions of which include a bonus disc rich with outtakes and rarities. This is three hours plus of prime Yo La Tengo, budget priced to boot, over an hour of which is new to all but the most unhealthy obsessives.
Ira Kaplan (gtr./vox) and wife Georgia Hubley (drums/vox), along with bassist and band-glue James McNew, tend to blanch, snarl, laugh, and/or cry at discussion of their status as indie rock torchbearers, and 20 years into this endeavor the genrefication seems more pointless than ever. Yo La Tengo deserve their seat at the table of rock's great bands, period, and the first two discs of Prisoners of Love offer all the proof this court needs. The third, a collection of rarities available elsewhere on various obscure soundtracks, singles, limited 7" and EPs is just icing on the cake.
What's so impressive about this band is how they excel at either end of the rock spectrum. From wistful, late-summer afternoon balladry ("Autumn Sweater") and gentle, barely audible soundscapes ("Our Way to Fall") to marathon feedback fests ("Big Day Coming"), retro pop anthems ("Tom Courtenay") and covers that run the gamut (Sun Ra's "Nuclear War"), the band's aim is deadly; rarely do they swing and miss. For newbies or dabblers, Prisoners offers a two-disc sampler that eschews chronological order for intuitive feel. Only the absence of "Cherry Chapstick" from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out seems worthy of second-guessing. That a song that great didn't make the cut testifies best to this collection's breadth and scope.
Track to burn: Any
South San Gabriel
The Carlton Chronicles: Not Until the Operation's Through
South San Gabriel's The Carlton Chronicles:Not Until the Operation's Through rivals its stunning predecessor, Welcome, Convalescence, and is built around a similar lonesome, high plains feel and Will Johnson's poignant narratives. This is ostensibly the tale of a dying cat, but Carlton's songs aren't species specific; Johnson's meditations on life, sickness and mortality are as touching as any put to music (though "Predatory King Today" does capture the feline essence perfectly: "It's so good to be/curious and free").
This ain't paint-by-numbers alt-country. South San Gabriel's arrangements unfold in languorous beauty, each of the nine songs richly varied in textures: programmed beats, synthesized accents, grand pianos, shimmering organs, nylon-stringed guitars, violins, banjos, and angelic harmonizing each play as key a role as the pedal steel so central to the record's feel. Some may blanch at the overtly melancholy nature of SSG, but I'll say it in print right here: They're pussies. The entire panorama of bittersweet music, graceful arrangements and thoughtprovoking lyrics elevate Johnson's deceptively simple songs into works of healing art; not for nothing do both South San Gabriel titles allude to music's recuperative powers.
Track to burn: "I Am Six Pounds of Dynamite"
Like a Smoking Gun In Front of Me
The Fucked-up Folk renaissance apparently knows no borders. Franklin Delano is an Italilan four-piece out of Bologna, formed in 2002 when Paolo Iocca (vox, guitars) met Marcella Riccardi (vox, guitars, lap steel, mandolin). Their first release, All My Senses Are Senseless Today, suggested that the Italians were capable of becoming one of the more impressive practitioners of the new folk sound, making the most of the movement's embrace of synthesized accents and electrified distortion in their hallucinatory narratives. Smoking Gun takes another leap forward, the 10 songs unfurling in a gentle, opiated manner, distorted guitars and swelling synthesizers providing accents and textured intros and outros. Most of these extended introductions and closings are inspiring, some lasting up to two minutes before Iocca's hard nasal pinch of a voice enters or exits. The songs share a similar elliptical aesthetic with Califone's work; then again, Smoking Gun was recorded in the Chicago band's Clava studio under the direction of production whiz Brian Deck (Modest Mouse) and with all four C-Fone members contributing. Still, these songs stand on their own, indicative of the real roots of American music.
Track to burn: "Bus Stop"