As winter releases its grip on the Midwest and the gray days give way to abundant sun, flowers spring from the ground and leaves burst forth from once-denuded branches. And just like clockwork, Yo La Tengo appears in town.
With this third trip to St. Louis in twelve months, the indie-rock trio's recurring visits to our fair town might lead one to believe that the MetroLink extends all the way to Hoboken. How else could St. Louis be so fortunate to receive so many visits in such a short time?
"Thank you for saying that," Ira Kaplan murmurs. The part-time frontman for the band (he shares vocal duties with wife Georgia Hubley) is quick to note, "We enjoy St. Louis, but I'll say there is something of a coincidence that this keeps happening. The Sounds of Science in particular -- we haven't done it in about three years. It's a pretty hard show to mount, so in particular we don't seek them out. They're self-selecting in that if somebody comes to us, we think they might be ready to deal with everything that's involved. You know, coordinating the films from France, and us and our special needs."
The films Kaplan refers to are the documentaries of Jean Painlevé; the French filmmaker created a strange marriage of science and art when he took his cameras underseas in the '50s and '60s. Somewhere between (and beyond) Jacques Cousteau and Steve Zissou, Painlevé crafted tiny epics with titles such as The Love Life of the Octopus and How Some Jellyfish Are Born. In 2001 the San Francisco Film Festival approached Yo La Tengo about performing live to a film of the band's choice, and after much deliberation, the undersea world of Painlevé was determined to be the perfect showcase for Yo La Tengo's talents. Thus was birthed Yo La Tengo's "The Sounds of Science" project.
"We were just trying to find our way in, I think. And we just hadn't," Kaplan explains. "And it occurred to somebody to try the Painlevé films, even though they're not silent films. And we saw them and we just leaped at that."
Small wonder. Painlevé's films are renowned for their visual beauty as well as their quirky sensibilities; for the band that composed the gorgeous, bubbly pop of "Season of the Shark," The Love Life of the Octopus is but a small step in the same direction.
"I don't know that we worked so much off the titles. On our little set list it just says 'Octopus,'" Kaplan reveals. "But the titles are of a piece with the films, the films are funnier than you would expect a nature documentary to be. There's just so much imagination to them, and they're beautiful to look at. There's definitely a lot of inspiration to work with, from them."
The same can be said of Yo La Tengo's music. Kaplan, Hubley and bassist James McNew write beautiful pop songs like nobody's business, but they also lace their music with the silvery sheen of feedback, roaring amps and howling blasts of keyboard. Large expanses of songs such as "From a Motel 6" and "Big Day Coming" pass by wordlessly, sucking the listener in with the furious tug of a riptide -- and, just as quickly, that pull becomes caressing waves of sound. Hoboken is closer to the ocean than to St. Louis, after all.