Images Festival :: Yo La Tengo presents The Sounds of Science – Toronto Underground Cinema (April 21, 2012)

Words: Jesse Locke

A still from Jean Painlevé's L'hippocampe (The Seahorse) (1934).

The 2012 Images Fest closed out on a highly enjoyable note with this evening of aquatic entertainment. As the MC explained, booking indie-rock stalwarts Yo La Tengo to perform their score for oceanic avant-gardist Jean Painlevé had been eight years in the making, but it was undeniably worth the wait.

For a prelude to the main event, the scratchy reels of five-minute jellyfish short “The tide goes in, the tide goes out” by Toronto’s Larissa Fann couldn’t have been more fitting. Melancholy soul barer Mantler was also smartly matched with the quieter side of Yo La Tengo, and his tongue-in-cheek tunes on keys and drum machine were the perfect apértif. In 20 minutes’ time, the white suited crooner managed to squeeze in a Kinks cover, bust out a stream of fast-paced quasi-rapping, and completely charm the crowd.

Yo La Tengo have always been more cinematic than the average riff-wielding trio, especially on extended instrumentals like “Night Falls On Hoboken.” For their Painlevé score, they exercised all sides of their musical vocabulary, from lulling ambience to squealing skronk rock that sent at least a few audience members running for the exit. Ira Kaplan throttled guitar and organ into shimmering submission, while bassist James McNew alternately kept time and blasted out thick chunks of fudge. Cool as ever, Georgia Hubley held it down on the kit, rolling out tom-heavy workouts, kraut-style stompers and cymbals that washed up like waves on the shore.

The live soundtrack was gorgeous, yet Painlevé stole the show. His eight films dating as far back as the ’20s cast a magnified focus on underwater dwellers, packed with cool facts (male seahorse carry the eggs!) and a pithy sense of humour (they look pompous when they do it!). From pregnant jellies to shrimp catchers dressed like Groucho Marx, the visions of this proto-Cousteau vanguard were a gift. Any kids who skipped science class back in his day missed out.