Weekly Wire
The Boston Phoenix Gradual Glory

The slow steady triumph of Yo La Tengo

By Franklin Bruno

FEBRUARY 28, 2000:  "A lot of the things we've done have just been a matter of conquering shyness or fear. In Georgia's case, the act of singing at all, and in both our cases, the level of the vocals in the mix. The amount of attention given to the words is another manifestation of that -- our demands on ourselves lyrically have increased."

The voice belongs to guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan, one-third of the venerable rock trio Yo La Tengo, and he's speaking from the Hoboken home (newly snowed in as we speak) he shares with drummer, co-lead singer, and spouse Georgia Hubley. Hubley sits out the interview, though she's not far away -- Kaplan frequently turns to her to check a date or get an opinion. Bassist James McNew is presumably a train ride away in Brooklyn, where he also indulges his solo jones under the nom de Tascam Dump.

As Kaplan indicates, Yo La Tengo are gradualists; in the 15 years between their first self-released single and the brand-new CD And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, they've slowly evolved from "a shy dog looking for the nerve to bite" (to borrow a phrase from an early song) into one of the most versatile and rewarding entities currently describable as "a rock band." It's not the kind of growth curve that garners much attention from commercial radio or MTV, which are better equipped to foster one-shot million sellers than career artists.

Still, each album and tour has been higher-profile than the last, and the band's status as pop music's best-kept secret may soon be a thing of the past. In recent months, even such cautious institutions as Time (which ran an admiring review of the new record) and the New York Times Magazine (which featured a full-page interview with Kaplan and Hubley) have had to admit that Yo La Tengo have been too good -- for too long -- to ignore.

Just how many Yo La Tengo albums are there? "We've officially been saying 10, but it varies," offers Kaplan. "We count Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo [a two-disc compilation of b-sides and other fugitive tracks] but not Strange But True [their turn as naïf-legend Jad Fair's backing band]." But taxonomy is nothing compared to deciding which full-length marks the key turning point in the band's development. Was it President Yo La Tengo (1989), which includes "Alyda," Hubley's vocal debut, and the 10-minute "Evil That Men Do," the first of Kaplan's many whammy-bar epics? May I Sing with Me (1992), their first with McNew, who has since graduated from third wheel to full songwriting partner? The encyclopedic I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997), which addresses everything from pointedly guitarless drone pop ("Autumn Sweater") to paint-peeling atonality ("We're an American Band") with equal aplomb? Or is it the new And Then Nothing . . . , their third with producer Roger Moutenot (Sleater-Kinney's The Hot Rock, numerous Bill Frisell projects) and their boldest stroke yet?

"This is the record we've been preparing for all our lives," jokes Kaplan (an ex-critic who knows a soundbite when he tastes one), but he may well be right. It's a few tracks shorter than Heart but no less capacious: "Tired Hippo" is a spy-flick tango, "Tears Are in Your Eyes" is a cross between Big Star's "Holocaust" and a close-harmonized country weeper, and several tracks combine elaborate beds of played and programmed rhythms with some of the band's most focused lyrics and melodies to date. The album expands on its immediate predecessors in at least two ways: the warring tendencies toward craft and improvisation are better integrated than ever, and the whole has a unified, mostly subdued feel missing from Heart's genre hop. Whereas 1990's mostly acoustic, mostly covers Fakebook was an entirely different shade of mellow.

These days, Kaplan says, no one sits down with a guitar to write a Yo La Tengo song; all decisions are hashed out in the band's frequent rehearsals. "When we started recording, we knew this record would be mostly quiet, but not when we started working. Our process of writing is slow -- we just play a lot and see what happens. We had a lot of false starts with this record because of different things that interrupted it -- we did a tour of Australia, New Zealand, and Japan in '98, and there was the Jad record. What we found was that the things we came back to were the quiet, slow pieces. The loud stuff didn't hold our attention."

The storm inside the calm is "Cherry Chapstick," a distorted, shaker-laden number that's the closest the album comes to the signature sound of earlier YLT rave-ups like "From a Motel 6" and "Sugarcube." "We tried to play it quietly for a while, but we didn't like it. If it had been any later in the record, it would have sounded tacked on, but if it had been earlier, people would have been expecting another one. This record went through a lot of possible sequences -- we even canceled our first mastering date."

At this point, the writing and recording processes in Yo La Tengo are so collaborative that it's not entirely accurate to call the band members "guitarist," "bassist," and "drummer" -- a situation that's partly the result of McNew's increased input. "James's role has been pretty consistent over the last couple of records. The notion that he plays bass or nothing is just false. He's the drummer on some songs this time, but I'm not saying which ones. I like the idea of not saying who does what, and what we do live isn't necessarily what we did on record." By this reasoning, the real watershed would be 1995's Electr-O-Pura, the first YLT album to dispense with individual songwriting and instrumental credits.

The songs are largely written by the time the band enter the studio, but because of YLT's recording methods the results bear few traces of their practice-room origins. This time out, YLT dispensed with the usual process of recording all the basic tracks before going back to add overdubs, instead spending a day or two on each song before moving on. It's effective but not cheap. "We've spent more money on each record we've done. I used to get upset reading about the million-dollar budget for something like Tusk, but I'm beginning to understand how you could do that." When it's suggested that Kaplan/Hubley/McNew are probably spending their advance more efficiently than Buckingham/Nicks/McVie did, Kaplan admits, "Our catering bill is probably a lot less."

As for those newly important lyrics, he allows that "they're not written by committee the way the music is. With some songs, it's fair to say that I wrote them, but nothing gets done without the stamp of the other two."

Whoever's responsible, it's clear that the increased care has paid off. Yo La Tengo's lyrics have always been unpretentious and often openly romantic, but never more so than on three songs that might be taken as the thematic core of the current album. "Our Way To Fall" ("in love," of course) evokes a relationship's early shaky stages with a delicate list of moments: "I remember your old guitar/I remember the way it looked around your neck, and I remember the day it broke." "The Last Days of Disco" frames a similar scene in a more specific musical milieu, as Kaplan's awkward narrator ("I don't really dance much, but this time I did") is drawn onto the floor by a woman who wobbles on her platform shoes and finds himself understanding party music for the first time: "The song said, 'Let's be happy,' and I was happy/It never made me happy before." (The disco reference also ties the song to the album's obligatory obscure cover, George McCrae's 1974 "You Can Have It All," which flip-flops genre and gender expectations by giving Hubley the lead while Kaplan and McNew supply girl-group support.)

"The Crying of Lot G" is the other side of the coin, and the album's verbal high-water mark: over a reverbed-out variant of a '50s-style 12/8 ballad, Kaplan offers some spoken-word ruminations on the downside of emotional intimacy: "I wonder why we have so much trouble cheering each other up sometimes/If you're in a bad mood, I look at you and I think, maybe she knows something I don't know" before pleading with his contentious partner, "All that I ask is you stop and remember/It isn't always this way." The confessional tone and conversational delivery recall another open-hearted modern lover, but any resemblance is purely accidental according to the singer: "I was going for Prince and ended up with Jonathan Richman." (Not everything is quite this direct: Kaplan reluctantly glosses "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" as "a made-up story about Frankie Valli. He's jealous that the name 'Dawn' is associated with Tony Orlando instead of the Four Seasons, so he burns down his house.")

The single "Saturday" is a highlight of an altogether more abstract kind, with a sketchy electronic rhythm ("That's Georgia, manipulating a Casio drumbeat though a delay") that barely anchors several layers of organ, a minimal guitar melody, and a slightly threatening, purposely incomplete narrative ("I said, 'Who's the guy with the gun'/As if I were involved") that passes from Hubley to Kaplan and back. This song and the equally disorienting "Everyday" also feature guest contributions from master percussionist Susie Ibarra, who's best known for her work with David S. Ware's free-jazz quartet; she stirs a smattering of AACM-style "little instruments" into the mix. This isn't Yo La Tengo's only recent overture to New York's jazz underground: a just-released double seven-inch on the band's own sporadically active Egon Records consists of two Sun Ra-inspired collaborations with trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr. and saxophonists Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen, all members of New York free-improv mavericks Other Dimensions in Music.

For Kaplan, forays into such potentially intimidating territory are just one more aspect of the band's exploratory ethic: "That recording is another illustration of the same thing I was talking about with putting more time into the lyrics. We had decided to cover [Sun Ra's] 'Rocket #9,' which showed a certain amount of brazenness, and then we wrote our own song in that mold. We've just continued to find avenues to challenge ourselves."

Yo La Tengo's current tour is another sort of challenge. For the first time, the band are playing sit-down venues (and requiring clubs to put in chairs where actual theaters aren't available), the better to draw attention to the new album's less propulsive material. This set of shows also marks another collaborative enterprise: Superchunk's Mac MacCaughan and, in a must-see appearance for any Flying Nun pop fan, guitarist David Kilgour of New Zealand's the Clean will be along as touring members. "We don't know what the shows will be like -- I'm sure that having five people on stage will reduce the freewheeling aspect of what we do. David's still in Dunedin right now, and we'll have less than a week to practice before the first show."

Fans accustomed to the band's long tradition of barely rehearsed collaborations with their touring partners should be confident that the extended line-up will work out just fine. But is Kaplan? "You know . . . I am!" He sounds a little surprised.

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