Music Reviews

Yo La Tengo

Nuclear War


It is not all that surprising that Yo La Tengo chose to reinterpret Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” as the first single from their forthcoming full-length album (Spring 2003). For nearly two decades they have sought to deconstruct pop orthodoxies and transcend sonic confines, averring an affinity for a more improvisational structure than much of the indie scene is accustomed. Despite the attempts of record stores to compartmentalize music in neat categories, Yo La Tengo belongs just as much alongside Sun Ra as they do in the same bin as Pavement and Superchunk.

With Nuclear War, Yo La Tengo prove to be zeitgeists not only in the context of their music, but also in a sociopolitical sense as this release couldn’t come at a more appropriate time. This single offers four very different versions of “Nuclear War.” The first is an unadorned, straightforward (which is very relative here, of course) interpretation of Sun Ra’s percussive brilliance. The second version is a bit more disturbing as eleven children engage in call and response with the band. There is something unsettling about hearing children chant: “It’s a motherfucker, don’t you know/If they push that button, your ass gotta go. . . Mutation, Radiation.” My disconcertion has nothing to do with the use of expletives, but rather how today’s young ones are bereft of innocence-especially after being bombarded with images of planes colliding with skyscrapers. It just ain’t fair that the kids are aware of all this convoluted shit that even we adults don’t fully understand. But I digress. The third rendition of “Nuclear War” is a protracted (16 minutes long) free jazz re-presentation with a entrancing polyrhythmic drum pattern and an elegantly squealing saxophone. This is likely how the song would have been performed live. The CD-single concludes with an experimental hip-hop remix by Mike Ladd of Ozone that is a little lackluster when compared to his previous work.

Indeed, Nuclear War is an enticing glimpse of Yo La Tengo’s forthcoming release. Let’s just hope that it’s not a harbinger for the world’s fate as our “leaders” keep their fingers a little too close to the self-destruct button. After all, it would be nice for there to be at least one more Yo La Tengo release before we blow ourselves to oblivion.

Yo La Tengo:

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