SOFTER. "Retire deep into the past/ Take this chance with me, 'cause it's your last." Sometimes the music is slow, quiet, and lyrical: melancholy ballads in minor keys. Other times it is loud, harsh, and grating, with buzzing guitar, lots of reverb, and dissonant riffs on the organ. Both of these modes can be traced back to the Velvet Underground, but it's the tension between them that really drives Yo La Tengo's 1995 album Electr-O-Pura. The sound is built up from separate, modular layers: instrumental and vocal lines, repetitive electronic loops. These are overlayed one upon another, without ever fusing into a single block of sound. The mixing process is still audible in the finished record. James McNew's bass is the one steady point of reference amidst all this flow. Georgia Hubley's drumming, in contrast, fades in and out of focus. It's laid-back on the slow and soft songs, barely audible or even missing altogether. But in the fast and loud tracks, it's quite frenetic, not keeping time so much as actively working to push and pull the song onward. Georgia's rhythms have a spring or tension that plays off, and strains against, the straight-on beat that otherwise dominates the music. Ira Kaplan's guitar playing, meanwhile, has its own distinctive mode of attack. It picks out riffs, repeating, distorting, transforming them. Sometimes it breaks them up altogether, in solos that are at once soaring and painfully twisted. But these never last very long. Ira is a powerful guitarist, but you won't hear him slipping into a phallic, 'macho white boy shows off his chops' mode. His discords and bent notes, his buzzes and reverbs, aren't just displays of virtuosity. They don't even really stand out from all the rest. Rather, they work as a sort of fill, providing density and texture. One more layer, they are absorbed back into the mix. The music is further thickened by background vocals, off-kilter organ riffs, and other electronic sound loops. And then there are the lyrics. Either Ira or Georgia sings lead, depending on the song. But their voices are usually mixed way down, as if they were mumbling or slurring the words. In "Don't Say A Word,"a song about "what trouble love is," Georgia's muffled, otherworldly voice seems to be addressing us out of sleep. In "Flying Lesson," which is about separation and loneliness, Ira's plaintive, halting, almost whispered vocals can barely even be heard. They are buried in a din of increasingly dense guitar and organ riffs. Words are the losers in this contest; they are too fragile to plumb the depths of loss. The tidal wave of dissonant, hard-driving noise sweeps them away. We're left with just the fleeting, broken timbre of Ira's voice. Such muted dramas and impossible battles recur throughout the album. Mournful songs of yearning ("My Heart's Reflection") and abandonment ("The Hour Grows Late") clash with bursts of techno dissonance ("False Ending") and aggressive punk rave-ups ("Attack on Love"). Ira's voice alternates with Georgia's. Constellations of affection and desire emerge, only to quickly dissolve again. Every pattern is tentative, every connection dubious. Nothing comes to a conclusion. Even "Blue Line Swinger," the album's 9-minute, bang-up finale, doesn't offer anything like a catharsis. It moves by repetition and gradual accretion, a process of slow transformation. Energy is built up, but never released. Georgia's voice emerges only twice, once in the middle and once towards the end, singing of love and doubt. There's no consummation, but only a kind of suspension. This music seems perpetually pre-orgasmic, trembling on the verge of a metamorphosis it can never quite reach. We are left waiting, always waiting. It's as if these songs unfolded in the past tense, rather than the present. They come to us from some vast distance, like light from an already extinguished star. For all stars eventually fade, even the TV stars evoked in the album's most catchy tune, "Tom Courtenay." Every chance is a last chance; it always arrives too late. It's a repetition of something I've already rejected and forgotten. It's all happened before, and it's going to happen again. As Ira sings in "The Ballad of Red Buckets": "I've thrown it all away... If dreams come back to me... I just cover my eyes and say: it will surely come... Here it comes again..." For love is a fatality, not a fantasy. I become vulnerable when I open myself to desire. I want, because there are things I can't have, and can't control. And so these songs are expressions, not of desire triumphant, but of the obstacles that baffle desire, and the pain and regret it leaves behind. They show us only so much, and reserve the rest. We're left stranded. "I haven't the nerve," Georgia sings at once point, "to tell you any more."
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