I used to take photographs like that. As a teenager, I inherited my father’s old Canon AE-1 and hauled it around for a good few years. Clunky and clanky, the camera was a totem of a past nearly erased by the ease and meager costs of digital point-and-shoots. But as a fiery-souled teen, it was the perfect medium – putting together simulated nostalgia with reckless abandon, my AE-1 was the eye at the heart of the teenage storm. As a journeyman’s tool, it may have been antiquated, but as my personal transmitting device it was peerless.
Photos like the cover of Yo La Tengo’s Painful are the soul of the teen years – the raw and awkward energy of the bright, angry, and confused. When I see this particular example, I imagine myself in a car on a rooftop parking lot across the street from LAX. A friend at the wheel and my upper half out the passenger side window, skidding donuts into the dusk. My discretion is gone, my smile seems permanent, and my camera catches it all with a blurry photographic non-sequitor. But that’s just me. Everyone has some sublime memory of their teen years hiding somewhere in this album cover.
After the gently drawn out intro of “Big Day Coming”, you get a real kick in the shins with “From a Motel 6″. Ira Kaplan hits a big wobbly chord, crackling with whiny distortion. That first burst of energy sets the song in motion, but lets it coast during the verses with a bouncing bass and steady beat. The picture painted here is a road passing by quickly but calmly, and much like the cover art, the motion is embellished but not chaotic – the howling detuned guitar riff serves as the source of the track’s potency, but lets the track roll along in between choruses.
The beauty of this album is the diversity it has in spite of its incredibly strong common theme. There are squelchy guitar tracks like “Double Dare” and “I Was the Fool…”; there are touching ballads like “Nowhere Near” and “The Whole of the Law”; the quietest and the most brazen tracks are two versions of the same song. The album’s closing track has the job of tying everything together in a cohesive and meaningful manner, which is a tall order when faced with an album as diverse as Painful. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned about Yo La Tengo over the years as a fan, it’s that they always know the best way to close a set. “I Heard You Looking” is no exception – it has just the right amount of everything, from reverb to tremolo, hook to freakout, bassline to backbeat. It all comes together as a single triumphant gesture – a thousand memories all at once, congealed into some untranslatable language, the cover shot echoing somewhere in the distance.
Artist: Yo La Tengo
Tracklist & Review (Allmusic)