Years ago in the Sugarhouse neighborhood of Salt Lake City a record-store clerk reverently took a CD from my hands. “You are about to buy,” he said, “one of the greatest albums in the history of rock music.” “Dude,” I said, “I know.”

The album was I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One by Yo La Tengo. I was buying it for my friend Flash, who had lent me his copy a couple of months earlier. I’d heard Yo La Tengo mentioned on the radio or something — I think their music was used as a backing track on This American Life, the radio show I was obsessed with back then. It sounded like something I might like, so when I saw the CD at Flash’s place I borrowed it. He said, noncommittally, that it was pretty good — but Flash was a little too cool to get excited about Yo La Tengo.

For me, it was love at first listen. Have you ever had an experience where you recognize something that’s so familiar it could be a part of you, even though you’re encountering it for the first time? W.H. Auden’s poetry was like that for me in high school: This was the kind of stuff I would write if I were a poet (and much smarter and more talented). Or the moment, my second day of college, when I realized that despite my ultraconservative, fundamentalist upbringing I was actually a liberal Democrat. (Two weeks prior, I’d been at the Republican National Convention cheering wildly for Ronald Reagan in one of his last public speeches. Yet declaring myself a liberal Democrat felt like coming home.)

Anyway, hearing Yo La Tengo’s heart album (I could never remember the exact wording of the title) was another one of those moments for me: “Where have you been all my life?” Based on a single album, Yo La Tengo became my favorite band, a position it still holds today.

I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One was apparently something of a turning point for Yo La Tengo as a band, the album with which they finally “arrived” in broader indie-rock circles after playing together for 12 years or so. And it remains their most accessible, and their most Yo La Tengo-ey, album. It’s an album of exquisite balances: concise little three- or four-minute rock and pop songs balanced by a few longer jams; a variety of styles and instrumentations held together by remarkably consistent production; extraordinary intimacy in the lyrics and vocal performances of tracks like “Autumn Sweater,” “Stockholm Syndrome,” and “One PM Again” coupled with a more traditional indie opacity in “Sugarcube” and “We’re an American Band.”

The central tension in Heart, which makes it such a satisfying album and makes Yo La Tengo such a perpetually interesting band, is between the pretty and the fucked up (for lack of a better term). Yo La Tengo is often compared to the Velvet Underground, even played them in a movie, and clearly they’re the inheritors of the downtown New York distortion tradion: the Velvet Underground begat Sonic Youth, and Sonic Youth begat Yo La Tengo. But Heart‘s most revealing track is probably a guitar-heavy cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda.” It keeps the Brian Wilson smileyness of the original and overlays a thick coating of heavy guitar. It turns out that Hoboken, NJ, Yo La Tengo’s stomping ground, unexpectedly turns out to be located just about halfway between downtown Manhattan and Laurel Canyon, California.

Another key balance is between comfort and affliction. Overall, one of the things I love about I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One is its warmth: warm tones, relaxed tempos, and something about the mix that keeps the sometimes-intense distortion from seeming harsh. A lot of this warmth has to do with Roger Moutenot, their longtime producer. He has a way of adding opium smoke to the final mix, I think; it really mellows you out.

But often enough a certain danger persists despite the opium cloud. Both “Deeper into Movies” and “We’re an American Band” have long psychedelic passages that, in the great tradition of psychedelic music, refuse to take any special care of your psyche. If you’re going to take that trip, you’d better be able to handle it. The psychedelic properties I see in Yo La Tengo relate, I think, to THC more than the other psychedelics: They’re not so intense as to dominate, but they’re always in the background, keeping the music teetering between euphoria and paranoia.

Once a roommate, E—-, and I smoked a little weed that turned out to be stronger than we expected. We were sitting in the living room and I put on I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One, expecting the warm side of it to help calm us down. But E—- grew increasingly agitated. Halfway through “We’re an American Band” he bolted out of the room and actually left the apartment entirely. I figured out later that the swirling guitars towards the end of that song actually sound demonic, the exact opposite of what E—- needed to hear at the time.

Of course, E—- was the same roommate who borrowed and misplaced my borrowed copy of Heart, requiring me to stop at that record store in Sugarhouse and pick up another copy before I drove down to visit Flash. The borrowed copy later turned up under a seat in E—-‘s car, and it’s the one I still have.

6 responses to “Heart”

  1. Tim Wager says:

    Hey Dave,

    I love this record and your essay.

    Nothing more to say,


  2. Riptide says:

    Your essay called up my first YLT moment—their appearance in Hal Hartley’s 1995 movie “Amateur.” They did a song called “Shaker” (is that on any of their CDs?). Happily, that same movie turned me on to Pavement (“Here”), My Bloody Valentine (“Only Shallow”), and PJ Harvey (“Water”). I credit that single movie for breaking me out of my deep Pixies rut I had been stuck in for 6 years.

  3. Dave says:

    You can find “Shaker” on their recent best-of compilation, Prisoners of Love.

  4. An E— says:

    I just read Lisa Parrish’s “My gay secret part I”—call me, well, increasingly agitated. I have (cough) no recollection of ever having smoked weed (cough, cough), strong or otherwise. Nor—and this part’s true—I have no recollection of the blissful “I can hear the heart…” a) sounding demonic or b) being found under my car seat (though I do have a memory of—let’s just say—drinking too much coffee one evening and storming paranoid, devils chasing me, out of an apartment you and I shared. Still, with me, Dave, you clearly have the wrong E— But from this E— to you, thanks for an intro years ago to “I can hear the heart….” Yes, what a great album.

  5. An E— says:

    —and I’d like to add, thanks for a great essay.

  6. […] The band’s two full-lengths after I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One were noticeably more coherent than that wide-ranging album. Both And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000) and Summer Sun (2003) took the painfully introspective parts of Heart and refined them into hushed and haunting songs that, at their best, made you cry despite yourself. But the quiet was disconcerting, and we wanted more energy, more rock and noise, from this very noisy trio. […]