Yo La Tengo

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

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I was a bit startled when I read the title of this compilation and it struck me that Yo La Tengo have been making records for almost 20 years now. As artists who have always followed their own path, Yo La Tengo have been making timeless music ever since they first started out, and if that description sounds a bit grand, little of the stuff on this set suggests the moment in rock history in which it was recorded ("Little Eyes" from 2003's Summer Sun sits comfortably beside "Lewis" from 1987's New Wave Hot Dogs, and you can't say that about the work of many other bands that were considered hip in either year), so until the band (and Matador Records) chose to point it out to me, I never gave much thought to how long they'd been doing this stuff. Still mixing up folk, noise, pop, and indie rock after all this time, and still doing it with melodic intelligence and joy, Yo La Tengo don't seem like likely candidates for a career retrospective -- their average fan owns all of their albums, and with nearly all of their material in print, it's not as if curious newbies have limited options for checking out their music. But if you've ever dreamed of a "Yo La Tengo Greatest Hits" album, Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs, 1985-2003 is that notion made into a fine reality. Featuring material from all of their albums (except for their debut, 1986's Ride the Tiger), this two-disc set is an embarrassment of riches, offering one great song after another over the space of 23 tracks and 110 minutes. From the noise-shot jangle rock of "Sugarcube" and the po-mo folk of "Autumn Sweater" to the witty skronk-fest of "The Story of Jazz" and the near-perfect pop single "Tom Courtenay," what's most remarkable about this album is that everything bears Yo La Tengo's clear musical personality and emotional warmth no matter what style they choose to follow, and it's all wonderful, engaging, and compelling stuff. If you've somehow managed to ignore Yo La Tengo in the first two decades of their existence, Prisoners of Love is the ideal way to get up to speed and acquaint yourself with the catalog; longtime fans won't be surprised, but they will get a potent reminder of what this group does so well.

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