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culture

Yo La Tengo’s Underwater Adventure

Hoboken band closes out the Images Festival with a little help from Mantler, and science.

In a master stroke of programming, the Images Festival wrapped up its 25th year on Saturday night with “The Sounds Of Science,” a collection of vintage short films on marine life by French filmmaker Jean Painlevé and his partner, Genevieve Hamon. The truly brilliant part: the festival also booked indie rock band Yo La Tengo to perform live musical accompaniment, with a score they composed for the films in 2001. It made for a hypnotic and psychedelic trip under the sea, where seahorses swim and octopuses slither along to a steady driving beat of distorted guitar and densely layered soundscapes.

The evening opened with local act Mantler, which consists only of Chris Cummings and, occasionally, a drum machine. Formally attired as usual, he performed songs on a Wurlitzer that were rife with ragged soul and sung in a plaintive speak-sing, with heartbreaking cracks when he reached for the high notes. One upbeat song, “I Guarantee You A Good Time,” was introduced as being about guaranteeing a good time and began with the suitable opening lyric “I guarantee you a good time.” He dedicated a cover of the Kinks’ “Too Much On My Mind” to Yo La Tengo, knowing that they are fans. And he closed out a refreshingly original set with a lengthy and impressive rap before opening the floor to suggestions for new names for his musical persona. Evidently, he is being threatened with legal action by jazz musician Michael Mantler and will be forced to adopt a new moniker.

The Sounds Of Science consisted of eight short films, ranging from titles like “How Some Jellyfish Are Born” to “The Love Life Of The Octopus.” Painlevé and Hamon have a knack for making the microscopic more engaging by assigning human emotions to the various creatures they observe. Through sly subtitles and close study of the subjects, the underwater world is shown to be one filled with pain, pathos, and comedy. There was also plenty of useful information to be gleaned, including the fact that male seahorses give birth and that octopuses are forever swimming backward. For a festival preoccupied with images, these were films with plenty of great ones: startlingly detailed shots of the sea urchin’s biology, hundreds of jellyfish bursting to life, and desperate shrimp fleeing from their own kind for fear of being devoured.

It’s a testament to Yo La Tengo’s ability that their score, like any good one, so complemented the footage that it was at times almost unnoticeable. Establishing an appropriate tone for each short, the band shifted and shaped the groove as the action unfolded. While gazing up at the screen and jumping onto different instruments, members crafted a hazy wall of reverb and distortion that served as musical acid for the unspooling of nature’s minute curiosities. One piece entitled “Liquid Crystals” was an all-out assault on the ears, showcasing a mess of crashing cymbals and squealing, discordant notes to accompany what looked to be the formation of liquid crystals.

But at that moment, it didn’t really matter what it was. It was trippy and gorgeous and that was all that mattered.

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