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Thursday, May 08, 2003
  Layers and Layers and Layers of Memory: Yo La Tengo, Shepherd's Bush Empire, May 7th 2003

Here are some thoughts I had whilst watching Yo La Tengo last night. I don't know anything about them, I've only heard bits and bobs, and mostly when I've been falling asleep. Going in, I imagined I'd probably assumed more about the band than was fair from the cover of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, their album from 2000 (see above). That artwork, which I love, speaks so clearly about lost things, forgotten things and remembered things. Sad things. A helpless nostalgia. So, armed with my preconceptions, this is what I felt about the gig. Please note this is pretty stream-of-consciousness, I just put it down as it came out. I might try and revise it into something shorter, a bit more coherent and less poncey later on...

In this music, the layers it's built from are made visible - central - by there only being 3 people on the stage. The relationship between what they're doing and what you can hear is explicit. The music comes in sheets. Songs sound less like they're shaped around melodies, but built on pattern and loop. It affects like architecture. Things build and fall away, and sometimes collapse. Some examples might help.

For instance: a lop-sided drum booms a looped beat. A thick bass squiggle is a counterpoint - marking the gaps between the beats and tying the two layers together to suggest something rising from the ground. Sudden flash of...what? Feedback? Tape noise? At first it's a non-sequitur, disturbing. It recurs and as it does it too settles into the music's pulse. This mechanical construct starts to flicker with colour. Three layers, over-lapping, needing each other. From nowhere the sound has suddenly become beautiful. The comfort of rhythm. The joy of repetition, of feeling what will come next before it comes. Song finishes.

Another: wave after wave after wave of droning, chiming guitar. Underpinned by throbbing four-note descending bass-line. Metronomic drumming is only there to make explicit what is embedded in the other layers: the transcendental release of holding a pattern. Something strange happens after several minutes (how many bars? 128? 256?). Nothing has changed in the music but the drone is now a euphoria. The guy starts to trash his guitar, the mess of feedback not unfriendly but a necessary, calming, guiding hand to help us climb down from that inexplicable meditative peak. Sadness follows. The come-down. We won't get back there, it's clear, not tonight.

They follow it with a short, exhausted, blue-lit lullaby. Off they go. It should be the end.

It isn't. Two encores, each song they play dragging us away from whatever terrifying insight they've been grasping at all night. The Ramones' 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend' turns up. Here's one of their blueprints: the wall-of-sound teenage wail of Spector's girl-groups filtered through the numb, trashed drone of NYC '77. It makes a lot of sense - a cute illustration of an alternative American pop family tree. Another nod to memory, to a sad nostalgia. Finally they sing (and it's the first time the words have really sounded out over the layers of sound) something like: "tears are in your eyes tonight. Tears are in your eyes every night." An excruciating memory, a deep remembered sadness transformed into something cathartic. Good night.

I spent the whole gig thinking about other people, other places and times (I was by myself - this probably helped, having no-one to chat to). My nostalgia and my memory pricked, haunted by the feelings implicit in that album cover. The layers are what have stayed with me. The core of the emotion in this music is in the layers, the repetition. Yo La Tengo make me think of how music is somewhere between us and the world. It works something like memory. Experiences played over and over in your head. Layers of feeling that only feel like they make sense when they've been repeated in your memory to the point of numbness. It's a comfort and a release. It's frightening too, because as each wave repeats, you know you're further away from the moment that caused it. I guess that's one of the things we use music for - to help us feel more in touch with things and feelings that are gone. Yo La Tengo's music, dependent on and rejoicing in a kind of sublime pattern-recognition, works because in celebrating and mourning things that are gone forever, it mirrors the way we actually think about those things. Huge emotional and necessary constructions, built on simple feelings and patterns. It's as hard to pin down, and just as sad, as memory.

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