The progress of Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo from one end of the Velvet Underground (preternaturally calm pop) to the other (guitar-noise world domination) is a curvy creative arc that goes off in various digressive directions and defies connect-the-dots simplicity. Beginning in earnest with the group’s third album, onetime rock critic Ira Kaplan’s introverted singing and demonstrative guitar work, held in gravitational orbit by Georgia Hubley’s straightforward drumming and the married couple’s fannish enthusiasms, have led Yo La Tengo (named for the cry of the Spanish-speaking outfielder) to nose around many fascinating corners of the noise-pop universe. Keeping cool heads even when rising distortion levels threaten the established order of things, Kaplan and Hubley (joined by a series of friends over the years until settling on James McNew as the crucial third member of the ensemble) make increasingly ambitious records that invariably deliver textural thrills, entertaining reference points and occasional blasts of wholly original invention.
Ride the Tiger, produced by ex-Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley, benefits from Dave Schramm’s sterling guitarings which, like Kaplan’s reedy (as in Lou) vocals, underline Yo La Tengo’s early vintage-Velvets connection. The band also covers Ray Davies’ “Big Sky,” but it’s originals like “The Cone of Silence” and “The Forest Green” that make Ride the Tiger such a pleasure.
Schramm’s absence costs the self-produced New Wave Hot Dogs some of its instrumental flair, but smart, effective songwriting makes up the difference; Kaplan plugs tentatively into roiling vats of skronk chaos for “Let’s Compromise” (with help from then-Bongwater guitarist Dave Rick), “House Fall Down” and “The Story of Jazz,” but the album mostly relaxes around the Feelies’ neighborhood, acting shy and fidgety but finding a seductive melodic groove. (There’s a dead-ringer cover of Lou Reed’s “It’s Alright (The Way That You Live).”) Typical of the band’s real-life sensibilities, “Lewis” ends by listing oldies titles in the hopes of someday forgetting “every hit song America ever had.”
Gene Holder produced and plays bass on President Yo La Tengo (later repackaged on one CD with New Wave Hot Dogs and “The Asparagus Song” from a 1987 single). The seven-song mixture of studio efforts and two concert items ranges far and wide, starting with the droney tug of “Barnaby, Hardly Working” and ending with a serious, spare rendition (with accordion by John Baumgartner of Speed the Plough) of Bob Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away.” As if to underscore Yo La’s multi-faceted personality, Kaplan’s “The Evil That Men Do” appears twice: as a concise ’60s guitar and organ instrumental and as ten mind- bending minutes of onstage feedback fury.
Schramm returned to join Hubley and Kaplan (bringing along standup bassist Al Greller from his own group, the Schramms) for Fakebook, a delightful, low-key covers collection. Besides an eclectic stack of tuneful arcanities from the Kinks, Flying Burrito Brothers, John Cale, NRBQ, Cat Stevens and the Flamin Groovies, the group also lends an interpretive ear to The Scene Is Now and (were they the first?) Daniel Johnston. In a conceptual coup, Yo La even covers itself, re-recording a song each from the prior two albums. The simple arrangements are ideal for Kaplan’s genial singing; Hubley’s harmonies contribute to the friendly folks-at-home ambience.
Coincident with the arrival of permanent bassist James McNew (ex-Christmas) and Hubley’s emergence as a lead vocalist, May I Sing With Me finds the trio splashing around the noisy end of rock’s pool. On the album’s pièce de resistance, “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss,” Kaplan spews feedback and guitar noise like he’s losing his grip on a steaming runaway firehose; powered along by Hubley’s newly insistent drumming, he affects an aggressive singing style that undercuts the song’s shock wave frenzy by failing to contrast with it. That lack of dynamic variation is the album’s problem — several songs in need of gentle succoring are rattled off the tracks by clamorous arrangements, while others designed to withstand heat treatment (like “Out the Window”) don’t have much else to recommend them. Segments of the record balance the band’s divergent impulses to good effect (the feedback- laced instrumental “Sleeping Pill” and the Hubley- sung “Satellite,” for instance. But Kaplan’s inability to keep his hands off his instrument cocks up the mild- mannered appeal of “Five-Cornered Drone (Crispy Duck),” needlessly threatens the tranquility of “Always Something” and disperses the airy cloud of Hubley’s vocals on “Detouring America With Horns.”
Upside-Down footnotes May I Sing With Me with a substantial remix and a complete rerecording of its comely lead-off track — thereby making “Upside-Down” available in distinct loud and soft variations rather than any blend of the two. The EP’s three other tracks are covers (wan pop and fierce punk) and “Sunsquashed,” 24 minutes of dark, stormy, string-bending improvisation that introduces organ into the band’s regular bag o’ tricks. That Is Yo La Tengo, released overseas prior to the album, previews three songs from it and adds two outtakes from the same January 1991 sessions for which producer Gene Holder served as the band’s pre-McNew bassist.
Having been left to its own idiosyncratic creative devices for so long, Yo La Tengo suddenly sounds supremely confident, stylistically settled and — dare it be said? — trendy on Painful, a serenely atmospheric album most British shoegazer stars would kill to have in their catalogue. Using simply held organ chords as a basic structural element, keeping vocals right in the breezeway and filtering dramatic, moany waves of barbed guitar extrusion over placid songs in no hurry to reveal themselves, the trio invents an exquisite world of decorum and revelation, a cool sonic oasis that occasionally catches fire. Hardly a collection of singalongs, Painful does drift somewhat more than it probably ought to, but it does contain such sturdy compositions as “From a Motel 6” (cute Dylan road pun, that), Hubley’s “Nowhere Near” and the shapely instrumental “I Heard You Looking.” Finessing harmonic layers of melodic noise that put Sonic Youth’s strenuous exertions to shame, Kaplan ambles right into the advanced placement pantheon of guitar mistreaters and is the main reason Painful is such a joy.
With some exceptions, Electr-o-Pura undoes that progress, redividing the band into loud/soft alternation with a looser, edgier feel in tracks that aren’t nearly as worked over or carefully thought out. Hubley sings more than usual, holding down the folky fort in songs like “Pablo and Andrea” (a lovely breeze carried on Kaplan’s most graceful guitar picking) and the fuzzier “(Straight Down to the) Bitter End.” Kaplan does a great job singing “Tom Courtenay,” a euphoric harmony pop tribute to ’60s Britville that is by far the band’s catchiest-ever composition, and brings Tom Verlaine-y aplomb to “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1),” “Paul Is Dead,” “The Ballad of Red Buckets” and the tenderly romantic “My Heart’s Reflection.” But he devotes greater creative energy to shaping songs like “Decora” and “Blue Line Swinger” with tremolo, feedback and experimental forays into “patterns of sound.” Tom Courtenay the EP adds two non-LP originals and a Dead C cover; Camp Yo La Tengo presents a remix of “Blue Line Swinger,” a Hubley-sung acoustic remake of “Tom Courtenay,” a tremolo- timed garage cover of the Seeds’ “Can’t Seem to Make You Mine” and a long, somber jam (with found-sound samples) entitled “Mr. Ameche Plays the Stranger.”
Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo is a thoroughly fine two-CD (one vocal, one instrumental) compendium of rare and unreleased tracks.
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One replaces most of the noise freak-outs with happiness in a groove. Mature and polished, it turns tentativeness into sweeping grandeur. Kaplan’s singing is fragile (“August Sweater”); Hubley’s drumming is a smorgasbord of directions and styles. Individual compositions emerge in distinct styles: McNew’s “Stockholm Syndrome” is as immediate as a favorite beer mug, while Georgia’s “Shadows” likewise stands out. “Sugarcube” is a warm buzz (its spoof/homage video, by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, is classic). “Center of Gravity” betrays a Bacharach fetish (“It’s a familial song we’ve known so long”), and the band veers both surly (the steel guitar “One PM Again”) and confident (the groove-based “Moby Octopad”). “My Little Corner of the World” was originally a hit for Anita Bryant. The CD booklet is an amusing send-up of imaginary label mates.
The US Little Honda EP expands that song (which is on I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One) into a mini-LP of covers. While the title track (also in a live version) is a Beach Boys-penned Hondells song, the EP includes covers of William DeVaughn (without much soul), the Kinks (a Yo La Tengo favorite), Urinals, Gram Parsons, Sandy Denny (“By the Time It Gets Dark,” a good choice) and Queen (sort of). (Yo La subsequently covered The Simpsons‘ theme song for inclusion on the show.)
While much of YLT’s music can seem mellow at first brush, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out drops down to a sleepy vibe, with jazzy brushed drums and liberal organ. Not a complaint, they’ve simply learned how to let an album breathe by holding back. Though the first half slips by in a pleasant dream, it’s hard to picture any other band pulling off “You Can Have It All.” The non-playboy lament “Cherry Chapstick” is the album’s first rock outcropping, and it appears at the three-quarter mark. The mood and atmosphere makes Hubley’s “Madeline” comparable to, say, Astrud Gilberto. While her (Hubley, not Gilberto) lyrics tend to be humorous observations, Kaplan’s center on relationship pain. A calm triumph.
The Sounds of the Sounds of Science is ambient music written to accompany a nature-film project. Yo La Tengo meets the challenge with intricate and thoughtfully arranged and visually evocative instrumentals. The Nuclear War EP offers four long versions of the Sun Ra song. Merry Christmas From Yo La Tengo contains three sincerely presented “modern” Christmas songs.
Summer Sun continues the softness with arrangements that are even less dense than those on And Then Nothing. The hooks are subtle; the vocals breathed as much as sung. The theme of bouncy, ’60’s summer fun weaves its way through the compositions from a distance (and not always favorably: “Summer stinks and summer stays too long,” from “Tiny Birds”). “Little Eyes” is one of the band’s best ever, while “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float,” which Bacharach could have penned, completes the full-circle connection in the Tin Pan Gutter branch of the indie world. “Let’s Be Still” is chamber-drone; “Take Care” is a Big Star cover. Today Is the Day contains an improved version of the album track, a Bert Jansch cover (“Needle of Death”), an acoustic version of “Cherry Chapstick” and three new tracks.
An annual tradition in which the trio aids the fundraising efforts of a New Jersey college radio station by taking listener requests for covers which it then attempts to perform in the studio is the source for Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics. Admittedly (and promoted as) a project just for fans, the entertaining album demonstrates the band’s breadth as it includes swipes at everyone from Archie Bell to the Bonzo Dog Band to X-Ray Spex. Prisoners of Love is a career-spanning compilation with a limited-edition third disc (A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities) of mostly album-worthy cuts. Strange but TRUE is a Jad Fair project in which Yo La Tengo provides the backing for tracks whose titles (and verses) were snatched from odd newspaper headlines.
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (the title comes from an NBA player’s comment) is another inspired project. The noisy opening track “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” may be a trying welcome for neophytes but will put old fans at ease within seconds. The topical, falsetto-sung “Mr. Tough” features horns and a piano solo, like much of the album, brilliantly borrowing from multiple genres across decades. McNew’s “Black Flowers” wouldn’t be out of place on a Dump album but in this context receives a plump arrangement. The partial riffs and signature textures in “The Race Is on Again” make it succeed. “Sometimes I Don’t Get You” dips into white soul and ’60s riffs; “I Should Have Known Better” and “Point and Shoot” similarly represent a Nuggets polarity. Though the rave-up “Watch Out for Me Ronnie” may reference Spector, it’s of no particular time or place. By the end of the final noise-jam track (purposely misspelled “Story of Yo La Tango”) it’s hard to imagine any other band with as much indie cred that could succeed with this material; it would be too audacious.
Dump is bassist James McNew’s sweet-as-kittens solo side project. Working at home on what he pointedly refers to as a “weary” 4-track cassette machine, he displays proficiency on a multitude of instruments (mainly guitar, bass, drums and Acetone organ) and a wavery tenor voice that wouldn’t hurt a fly, assembling pop tunes (original and covers) and sound collages to a please-yourself-first aesthetic. Superpowerless is simply wonderful, a soothing and minimally produced 19-track collection of delightfully forlorn originals (the brisk “Secret Blood,” “Good Medicine” and the escalating title track are easy highlights) and covers as far-reaching as the Shaggs, Sun Ra, Wreckless Eric, NRBQ and Henry Mancini. McNew gets a bit of assistance from his Yo La bandmates and Dave Ramirez of Hypnolovewheel, but Dump’s charm is all his fault. The 2013 reissue, with 25 tracks, is on vinyl, CD and digital.
Following a 7-inch quartet of covers (songs by Silver Apples, Barbara Manning, Jandek and Hypnolovewheel), the International Airport 10-inch eschews even the modest ambitions of Superpowerless, using bits of droney organ and noise guitar, plus occasional drums and vocals, to bring rudimentary life to four originals, a Versus number and the Kinks’ obscure “The Way Love Used to Be.” The title track, a 12-and-a-half minute extravaganza, builds handsomely to an invigorating weave of instrumental layers and begins to wind down before McNew begins singing, turning what could have been a minor outing into a compelling epic.
While fleshier arrangements return the gentle-cycle I Can Hear Music album (initially fortified with a second CD of bonus tunes) to the easy access of Superpowerless, McNew’s wan singing isn’t quite as assured or engaging as before. Still, his private world here is riddled with impressive powderpuff songwriting (“Don’t Let On,” “Slow Down,” “Curl”) and fine ideas: a gorgeous Fugs cover (“Morning Morning”), the Moody Blues citation of “Hope, Joe,” the grubby synth pulse of “It’s Not All Right” and the country bounce given Bob Dylan’s “Wanted Man.” And don’t miss the unlisted version of Ultravox’s “Vienna.”
A Plea for Tenderness is a mixed affair that drags more than it shuffles, although “Clarity” is McNew’s best original yet. Covers often provide the highlights of Dump LPs, and the selections here are Jacques Dutronc’s “Et Moi Et Moi Et Moi” and Roky Erickson’s “On the Right Track Now.”
That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice? is an album of Prince covers. Not a tongue-in-cheek dash-off, the selections (“1999,” “Raspberry Beret,” “Pop Life,” etc.) are lovingly presented and offer proof not only of McNew’s laptop-interpretational skill but to the songwriting skills of The Artist. The CD has five more tracks than the cassette.
Women in Rock is more 4-track bedroom pop, except for the opening noise track, “Horrible.” The instrumental “Loved” echoes the haunting beauty of YLT but, like the other selections, is much more up front. “The Words Get Stuck in My Throat” transforms the theme from “War of the Gargantuas” (previously covered by Devo) into a great pop song. “A Plea for Dump” begins with a nod to The Simpsons‘ comic-book guy (perhaps how McNew sees himself ) and, though slight, is the best track here. It’s unclear what any of this has to do with women in rock.
A Grown-Ass Man finds Dump still mellow but more consistent. Rather than simply airing out the demon bag, McNew has crafted several songs that stand on their own. Recorded in a real studio with fuzzy guitar and some live drums, the album boasts sonic variety that makes this the best Dump release yet. “I’m on Your Side” offers more than most Dump compositions and wears its Brian Wilson influence openly. “I Wish/You Wish” chews exactly what it bites off, and is both relaxing and absorbing. “Sisters” flows with a wave-washing sound in the back. And dig the delightful cover of Thin Lizzy’s “Cowboy Song.”