Yo La Tengo’s nine-step guide to becoming Yo La Tengo:
1) Fall in love, get married, start band with Velvet Underground fetish and revolving cast of accompanying musicians;
2) Find squeaky-voiced rhythmic giant and turn said giant into permanent bassist;
3) Gain cred by inking deal with Matador;
4) Appear in movie (they chose I Shot Andy Warhol, in which they portrayed Velvet Undergound) and spruce up theme song to an animated television show, but avoid accusations of selling out;
5) Set career mark by releasing album whose title references coronary unity;
6) Become critical darling to be oft referenced in following fashion: “Guitar hasn’t made grown men weep like this since Ira Kaplan’s mighty shredding on ‘Sugarcube,’ ” or “It’s good, but it ain’t Yo La Tengo, so why bother?”;
7) Sift through back catalog and alliteratively release choice cuts in well-dressed compilation format;
8) Make definitive list of ten steps for others to follow;
9) Reduce list of ten to nine when the tenth step, or for that matter the ninth, fails to materialize.
It’s that simple.
Well, not exactly. Regardless of how the members of Yo La Tengo have gotten to where they are, along the way they’ve amassed the type of back catalog just begging for such a career retrospective as Prisoners of Love. And regardless of whether the compilation was the decision of the trio -- Ira Kaplan, his wife Georgia Hubley and James McNew (aforementioned giant-sized bassist) -- or the product of Matador astutely jumping on the opportunity, it covers the band’s eighteen-year recording history fairly well. In three discs (the third is rarities and unreleased tracks) and forty-two songs, the compilation stops for a while to take family photos at the more scenic locals, such as 1993’s Painful, 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating as One and 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.
The mix isn’t compiled chronologically, but Prisoners of Love does visit the full spectrum, from the band’s first single, 1985’s “The River of Water,” with its utterly normal Loaded-era Velvet Underground schtick, to fine selections off 2003’s gentle-textured Summer Sun. The compilation does a decent enough job switching through Yo La Tengo’s many moods, lulling typically in delicate and somber tracks while reminding listeners of just how playful this trio can be with such songs as the tremendously entertaining Sun Ra cover “Nuclear War (Version 1).”
The outtakes and rarities on the third disc are not nearly as memorable as the album cuts. Of the bunch, however, “I Stay Away From Heaven” has the group emulating the German disco scene of the ’70s for a film soundtrack, and “Autumn Sweater” is mind bogglingly remixed by Kevin Shields. The disc even includes the band’s too-ridiculous-to-ignore 1986 cover of Stevie Nicks’ “Dreams.”
Of course, Prisoners of Love leaves quite a few holes (no “Cherry Chapstick”?), which will drive listeners to revisit these songs in their natural habitats, where the tracks can breathe among their natural kin. But who’s complaining? It’s good because it’s three discs of Yo La Tengo. If it were anything else, why bother?