(Clicka qui per la versione Italiana)
(Translated from my original Italian text by Nicole Zimmerman)
Yo La Tengo was one of the most important groups of the 90's, an inexhaustible source of ideas and a guarantee of quality music. They stood as a beacon of light for alternative rock in terms of intellectual excellence (perhaps the most typical characteristic of rock in the 90's, in opposition to the hedonist music and concerts of the decades prior) and in terms of synthesis, the ability to create a completely new language of reclaimed styles from prior decades.
Despite the highs and lows, they never went wrong with an album and never compromised commercially. Every one of their albums was an experiment (not always successful, but an experiment none the less). It was hard to find a song of theirs that was not an experiment and that did not say something which other songs did not also say. In a sense, the music by Yo La Tengo was an intellectual test on how to avoid the commonplace.
Sometimes they seemed too wise to be true artists, or too scholarly to be truly instinctive, or too noisy to be truly violent; Ira Kaplan wrote songs that will be recalled for a long time to come, for the simple fact that they are reminiscent of songs you do remember for a long time. Kaplan was like a computer programmer when it came to replicating the style of the few bands that no one ever talked about, beginning with the Velvet Underground. They were critics and they knew that critics could never allow themselves to the criticized. Once revealed, this gimmick showed its limits, but remained an effective gimmick just the same.
Yo La Tengo formed in New Jersey by Ira Kaplan, a vocalist influenced by Lou Reed but more languid and subtle, and Georgia Hubley, the drummer. They debuted with the album Ride The Tiger (Coyote, 1986), which took its cue from Velvet Underground by way of Television and Feelies to compose country-rock (very urban country-rock) in River Of Water, Cone of Silence, and The Way Some People Die. Kaplan's strength was greater in the instrumental parts than the vocals. It was there that his hybrid style triumphed by pushing the transcendent guitar trance of Television towards atypical harmonic horizons in the crazy discordant gallop of The Evil That Men Do, destined from the start to remain the group's masterpiece. In abstract ballads like Forest Green, the guitars built intricate textures that were inspired by the finger-picking of country music, by the quivering of psychedelia, and by the exuberant arrangements of "surf" instrumentals and thus came to intensely dream-like solutions. The bridge of Screaming Dead Balloons was a mini-concert of sinister cymbals and voodoo on the tam-tam.
Without the second guitarist, Dave Schramm, the group seemed to purify their country-rock sound on the next album New Wave Hot Dogs (Coyote, 1987), in favor of more harsh and melodic tones. On one side the vigorous tracks showcased the frenzied boogie of House Fall Down, the rock and roll (which culminated in a hypnotic jingle-jangle) of Clunkm, or the whirlwind of distortions that was The Story Of Jazz; yet all of these styles seemed just beyond their reach. On the other side, the tenuous refrains, like those of Syd Barrett, triumphed in Did I Tell You, the ethereal flutter of Three Blocks From Groove St, and No Water, which brought to mind the delicate strokes of impressionist painters. Kaplan's guitar improved, and in the fiery solos he combined the neurotic folk of Neil Young with the mystic jazz of Pharoah Sanders. Yo La Tengo continued to live off of a small babbling idiomatic rock because Kaplan could not find the words of an efficacious personal language.
President (Coyote, 1989) confirmed the fundamental confusion of character, now immersed in acid-rock more dreamy and hypnotic than before (Barnaby Hardly Working, Drug Test). Aside from the hippie-folk ballad in the style of "A Beautiful Day", Alyda, the material was recycled, on the covers and in the incomplete tracks. Kaplan's lazy vocals, languid and resigned, which continued to echo Lou Reed, did not keep the listener in suspense. The album contained a cover (even 2) which of itself constituted one of the more subtle instances of cult of personality.
This was not the case on Fakebook (Bar None, 1990); just a collection of covers (but with the relaxed fresco of Summer).
A late-comer to the New York new wave scene, Kaplan was a more relaxed and less nervous poet. After 4 albums he no longer sought to forge a truly personal language, and it would have been a language indeed; not just a vocabulary of mannerisms borrowed from the history of rock. He did not seek, above all, to compose another album after the first: the albums that came after were of tentative means and underdeveloped ideas as well as transitions. The first album, upon closer examination in a determined manner, made use of contributions of Dave Schramm.
May I Sing With Me (Alias, 1992), with James McNew on the bass, was a truly new album. Here, Kaplan found the balance he so stubbornly sought between the maniacal violence and the delicate contemplation which struggled in his music. Intellectualism was cut, the showy nonchalance of the scholarly rock was gone, and Yo La Tenga acquired the spontaneous rage and intense desperation of a true working class rocker. The album triumphed on all fronts. On the melodic front, the best came from the folk-rock track Upside Down, also one of their most gritty tracks ever, which united a simple and happy melody with confidence and an efficacious guitar noise. Sounds that were rough around the edges were plentiful in Out The Window, which exuded garage-rock stereotypes, and Some Kinda Fatigue, which was absorbed in hysteria like that of Television. The fragile soprano, Hubley, gradually came to the fore front and began to suggestively compliment the scratchy recitation by Kaplan. To Hubley, the 3 "sweet" songs were entrusted, and they were kind of like tonal poems whispered as a lullaby: Satellite, Always Something, and Swing For Life. These tracks were totally different than the rest on the album. On the more savage front, exuberance dominates, such as Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss, which united dissonance like that of Hendrix with a rousing tribal rhythm in crescendo, and Five-Cornered Drone, which demonstrated the limits of effects that have been sought at all costs. These tracks were simpler "songs" which became instilled in the subconscious, like a self-hypnotic exercise. There were even 2 instrumental tracks which were based on guitar feedback: the immense and hallucinogenic Sleeping Pill (the most experimental track Kaplan ever attempted) and the concise and lively Detouring America With Horns. These tracks represented their enlightenment in terms of the psychedelic and neurotic dream of Neil Young, and were worthy heirs of The Evil That Men Do. The album was the most mature (or at least the most varied and complete) of their career.
Painful (Matador, 1993) opened a new chapter for Yo La Tenga. The songs lost their psychedelic quality but conserved their domestic and collective qualities. Sweet and melancholy, they were no longer metaphysical, but simply the emotions of average guys. The long tracks Big Day Coming (sung by Kaplan) and Nowhere Near (whispered by Hubley) created a magical atmosphere within the confines of the new age: vocals, guitar, and organ all produced by drones, left floating to give the sensation of silence. The ultimate reminiscences of Velvet Underground were found in From A Motel 6, sunk into a mire of tenuous vocal harmonies and dissonant arrangements. The acidic organ in Sudden Organ and the monstrous distortion in I Was The Fool Beside You, precisely because it was an exaggeration of psychedelic signs, had nothing in common with tradition. The rules of psychedelic music were used to serve a darkened and realistic imagination, to substitute words and thoughts.
The romantic 7-minute instrumental closer, I Heard You Looking, repeated the same simple guitar melody in an ecstatic crescendo.
The single Shaker (1994), whispered over a distorted guitar pattern, was one of their most hypnotic Velvet Underground-ian feasts.
The splendid mystical dreaming of Painful extended to the next album, Electr_O_Pura (Matador, 1995). Articulated from beginning to end with hypnotic reverbs from the guitar, Decora started the dance under the motive of a contralto for the soft voice of Hubley. That angelic ego returned from time to time to calm the turbulent waters of the album, first in the carefree pop Tom Courtenay and then in the marsh of ethereal distortions in Ballad Of Red Buckets (similar to Lather by Jefferson Airplane). However, the album moved closer to gloomy through the mincingly dilated "gospel" of Hour Grows Late, the fragile watermark blues of My Heart's Reflection, and a languid country atmosphere like that of Chris Isaak in Pablo And Andrea. Also in these songs were sharp harmonies, but the flow was grainy. With Flying Lesson one enters into the alienation of Yo La Tengo: The sloppy refrain sung by Kaplan (inspired by Joy Division) in a duet with the hypnotic strumming of the guitar as found in Luna, enriched by a series of events and cacophonous noise, including splintering dubs and twangs, until everything becomes overwhelmed by an incandescent crescendo, repeated by drones like that of Velvet Underground. At the limit of industrial music, False Alarm put in motion a dissonant sob and then proceeded to a boogie rhythm. The lengthy jam finale, Blue Line Swinger, triggered a downpour of counterpoints and discord that constituted the best test of their music. The trio composed a refined and complete sound, compressed between the eccentricity of the guitar and the austere precision of the gospel organ, but at the same time melodious and accessible.
Genius + Love (Matador, 1996) collected rarities, unreleased tracks, outtakes, and live performances (one album was songs, one album was instrumentals).
Their sound further evolved on the next album I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (Matador, 1997), which from a technical point of view represented their most daring experiment. The guitar strumming pushed upon the sleepy rhyme of Moby Octopad and overtook it by the continuous roar of the guitar, and by the industrial noise and fuzz, and replaced it with the instrumental bridge in jazz scales as well as minimalist piano. Solemn organ chords and Native American drumming transformed Autumn Sweater into a kind of church service. Damage was a psychedelic nightmare of dissonance and drones, and Green Arrow was a mirage of Hawaiian beaches and fields of cicadas. Sugarcube was marked by a violent jingle-jangle of guitars bordering on psychedelic raga,
and We're an American Band boasts perhaps Kaplan's best solo of his career.
However, the melodies were the most predictable of their career, and the album was surprisingly disparate (for intellectuals), alternating between a country ballad (One PM Again), a Brazilian sound (Center Of Gravity), a deafening grunge (Deeper Into Movies), and a tenuous rhyme for children (My Little Corner Of The World); all these points worthy of a group of novices. Little Honda put electricity to work for a boogie resembling the Velvet Underground, paying homage to their beginnings. The cacophonic instrumental Spec Bebop, which dominated the album (10 minutes), linked itself to that early tradition. On the down side, the brief Stockholm Syndrome was a sleek pop tune resembling the Beatles/Bacharach, replete with falsetto lead and backup harmonies.
This became the "classic" album of Yo La Tengo, not necessarily their most creative, but probably the album on which their sound was the most personal and emotional.
The eight-track EP Little Honda (1998) contained the laid-back lullaby of By the Time It Gets Dark.
Yo La Tengo collaborated with Jad Fair on the album Strange But True (Matador, 1999).
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador, 2000),
the mellowest Yo La Tengo album ever,
for practical purposes devoid of melodic variation (most songs are sung in
a monotonous whisper) and focused on sonic textures,
is a de facto concept album sandwiched between two dreamy and ghostly
Kaplan and company sing the melancholy of ordinary lives with the detached tone
and the spiritual weltanschaung of
(Saturday, with electronic backbeat, and especially
Everyday, a sort of slow-motion version of the Velvet Underground's Venus In Furs)
and with the gloomy nonchalance of Lou Reed
(Our Way To Fall, the jazzy The Last Days of Disco).
On the other hand, the epic-length dirge Night Falls On Hoboken
sis virtually an overdose of claustrophobic
Nick Drake-ian moaning against an
easy-listening backdrop with an eight-minute instrumental psychedelic coda.
That and the tribal bacchanal of Cherry Chapstick,
the celestial shuffle of You Can Have It All,
and the trip-hop instrumental Tired Hippo,
constitute as much innovation as there is here.
The album also contains odd detours into "retro" music such as
the old-fashioned late-night dance The Crying of Lot G and
the Caribbean lounge shuffle Let's Save Tony Orlando's House.
This album is more of a classical balance of dejavu and re-elaboration.
Three instrumentals from these sessions (and some remixes) will surface on the
mini-album Danelectro (Matador, 2000).
This all-instrumental work is more ambitious in scope
and may be remembered as a transitional (eg, failed) work, but it may also
be the beginning of a career as avantgarde composers.
The all-instrumental album
The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science (Egon, 2002) contains
the soundtrack to a Jean Painleve film. In the all-instrumental
format, Yo La Tengo always sounds intriguing and visionary.
Their eerie scores (Sea Urchins, Liquid Crystals) are new-age
music for the literate.
The EP Nuclear War (Matador, 2002) contains four different versions of
Sun Ra's masterpiece.
While not as experimental as its predecessor, Summer Sun (Matador, 2003)
tries to be, on the other hand, atmospheric where it used to be merely languid.
The experiments, in other words, have been useful to renovate a sound that was becoming a cliche`.
There are the pop song (James McNew's Tiny Birds and Little Eyes, both replete
with classic refrains), and there are the fragile folk elegies
(How to Make a Baby Elephant Float and especially Georgia Hubley's Today Is the Day).
But the real delights of the album are the mostly-instrumental pieces: the
the ambient, tidal lullaby Beach Party Tonight,
the surreal funk of Georgia Vs Yo La Tengo,
and the chamber (flute, trumpet, saxophone, piano) free-jazz cantata Let's Be Still.
There are also novelty numbers (the charming, bossanova-like Season of the Shark, the waltzing Winter A-Go-Go, the beat-poetry rapping of Moonrock Mambo) that don't always work, but show dexterity at assimilating
new ideas, and there are nods at a new form of dance-jazz (Nothing But You and Me and Don't Have to Be So Sad) that could be their next phase.
The six-song EP Today Is The Day (Matador, 2003) includes three
songs that did not fit on the album:
Styles of the Times, a hard-rocking Lou Reed imitation,
Outsmarter, a solemn Velvet Underground-ian boogie sung in a cavernous tone, and the brief instrumental Dr Crash.
Prisoners of Love (Matador, 2005) is a triple-disc career retrospective
that offers way too many "rarities" (i.e., junk).
Is Murdering The Classics (Egon, 2006) is a terrible collection of
I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador, 2006)
is the work of consummate musicians who have precious little left to say,
but they can say it very well. There is also precious little here that they
have not done before (and better).
It is their most eclectic and varied collection yet. On the other hand,
most of the songs sound insincere, paying tribute to this or that phase of the
group and to this or that period of rock music:
piano-paced folk-rock ditties such as Beanbag,
lilting soul ballads such as Sometimes I Don't Get You,
Latin-jazz falsetto novelties such as Mr Tough,
chamber-pop elegies such as Black Flowers,
guitar-driven soft-pop lullabies such as The Race Is On Again,
spare alt-country yarns such as I Feel Like Going Home and Song For Mahlia,
breezy country-rock singalongs such as The Weakest Part,
Mersey-beat ditties such as I Should Have Known Better,
Cramps-ian rockabilly romp such as Watch Out for Me Ronnie (perhaps the best of this parade of imitations).
The emotional and musical core of the album remains (like for most of their
career) the Velvet Underground-inspired numbers: the eleven-minute instrumental
Pass the Hatchet (distorted organ drones, insistent rhythm, bacchanal-like crescendo),
especially the twelve-minute guitar noisefest of The Story of Yo La Tango.
Perhaps these are also a lot less sincere than they used
to be, but Yo La Tengo have perfected the art of appropriating the vocabulary
of Lou Reed and John Cale.
The lengthy ghostly instrumental Daphnia is another
highlight, a wavering stream of piano and guitar notes far from the limelight of rock cliches.
And the manic surf-jazz dance of Point and Shoot and
the surreal Caribbean shuffle The Room Got Heavy,
are the real alerts that these are musicians capable of more than merely
rehashing their (and the others') musical history.
Hubley and Kaplan are also smart enough to downplay their vocal harmonies.
Fuckbook (Matador, 2009), that Yo La Tengo released
under the moniker Condo Fucks, was probably just a prank (it's just a
set of disfigured covers) that the band
assembled to see what the critics would write.
Yo La Tengo's Popular Songs (Matador, 2009)
covers a lot of ground, as far as format goes, because
Periodically Double Or Triple is a casual funk
shuffle, while the mediocre By Two's represents the duo's trademark
Intergalactic signals introduce Here To Fall, a cross between a
jazzy orchestral jam, a Cream-like melody
(replete with "wah-wah" solo) and a thick syncopated rhythm.
At the same time the album reveals a strand of nostalgic Sixties revival,
from the bouncy Farfisa-driven ditty Nothing To Hide,
one of their liveliest creations, to
If It's True, an orchestral soul singalong.
When It's Dark sounds like
David Crosby fronting
Creedence Clearwater Revival.
The problem is that the songs also includes some truly awful ballads.
This idiosyncratic collection ends with three lengthy pieces:
the subdued nine-minute psychedelic threnody More Stars Than There Are In Heaven,
the eleven-minute ambient fresco for acoustic guitar The Fireside, and
the 16-minute post-Hendrixian space-rock jam And The Glitter Is Gone.
None of these is essential. This is high-class routine from veterans who
could play blindfolded and still kick ass.
They Shoot, We Score (Egon, 2009) collects film music of 2005 and 2006.
Fade (Matador, 2013) was the first Yo La Tengo album not produced by
Roger Moutenot in more than 20 years. Hiring
Tortoise's drummer John McEntire as the
new producer did not make much of a difference, anyway.
The problem is the quality of the material, not the production:
these sound like old tapes that
Kaplan found somewhere in the garage and decided to put out on an album.
The dense, rhythmic psychedelic singalong Ohm is passable, but
the country-pop shuffle Is That Enough (replete with sleep-inducing
string orchestra), the nostalgic beach Farfisa-rock of Well You Better,
are embarrassing second-rate pop muzak (to name only the "highlights").
For future biographers it might be interesting that Kaplan pays tribute
to Nick Drake's spartan folk in
I'll Be Around, but only hardcore fan can make it to the end of the
album, to the six-minute static orchestral ballad Before We Run
Stuff Like That There (Matador, 2015) collects
(The Ballad of Red Buckets, Deeper Into Movies) and
similar to what they did on Fakebook (1990).
There's a Riot Going On (Matador, 2018) is not much better.
The title is stolen from
Sly Stone's 1971 album but musically
the two albums have nothing in common.
The good news is the variety: from the western-movie instrumental
You Are Here to the country lullaby Shades of Blue,
from the relaxed Caribbean vibes of Let's Do It Wrong to
1940s-era Frank Sinatra-esque tune Forever,
from the Lou Reed-ian dirge She May She Might
to the poppy For You Too, the only song that is not letargic.
What Chance Have I Got sounds like a Latin-soul remix of a funereal Nico lied, while
is simply a celestial drone of synths in the style of the meditative new-age music of the 1980s,
and Above the Sound is simply a percussive orgy.
To balance the Latin-tinged moments, there are at least two Indian-tinged
Dream Dream Away, an enchanted litany that evokes the hippy era,
and the "om"-like Here You Are.
The bad news is that none of these amount to much, and each would be omitted
from albums made by specialists of its genre.
Yo La Tengo tries a bit too hard to sound sophisticated.
It achieves sophistication but at the expense of substance.