Yo La Tengo Depths of Devotion

Yo La Tengo Depths of Devotion
You won't hear traces of the “The Chicken Dance” on Yo La Tengo’s serene and thoughtful new album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, but Ira Kaplan says the record was shaped by wedding reception gigs last year. “We might have done four weddings — not always as Yo La Tengo — each with a radically different repertoire than the one before. I think the band has always had a very broad notion of what qualifies as rehearsal and what qualifies as preparation. These things end up filtering into our records in ways that we can't always anticipate.” Operating since 1984 in a wide array of line-ups, with former rock critic Kaplan (Spin, Rolling Stone) and his creative partner and wife Georgia Hubley at the core, Yo La Tengo has divided its devotion to the extremes of popular music, playing sweetly melodic pop songs and feedback-driven noise-rock with equally mesmerising results. –Christopher Waters

Spanish for “I've got it,” rock critic Kaplan dubs the new band Yo La Tengo in tribute to a Latin ballplayer who played for the New York Mets. Released by the band's Egon Records label, its first single pays homage to Arthur Lee's Love with a cover of a “A House Is Not A Motel,” which starts a trend. Over the years, the band has built a strong repertoire of ultra-cool yet obscure covers, many of which had disappeared from pop culture radar. This early incarnation includes Dave Schramm on lead guitar and Dave Rick on bass.

The band hooks up with ex-Mission of Burma bassist/producer Clint Conley to record its debut, Ride the Tiger (Coyote Records), which sets the benchmark for Yo La Tengo's folkie experimentalism: dreamy ballads smash their heads against full-scale guitar freak-outs. The lo-fi debut also includes a cover of Ray Davies' “Big Sky.”

Yo La Tengo's Velvet Underground obsession comes to the fore with the release of its New Wave Hot Dogs album. Produced by Kaplan and Hubley, the second chapter of winsome pop and strong songcraft features the band tackling early VU composition “It's Alright (The Way That You Live).”

“All the records were fun for different reasons,” the diplomatic Kaplan says, when asked to pick an early favourite. But President Yo La Tengo stands out as the band’s great leap forward. The sonic schizophrenia that characterises all future work starts here, including two radically different takes on “The Evil That Men Do” — as a glorious straight-ahead instrumental and an over-the-top blistering rave-up delivered with reckless abandon. It establishes a trend — the band regularly re-records songs. “It's never a corrective measure,” Kaplan insists. “We enjoy playing them in different ways and enjoy being led down a different path.”

Fakebook sees two of Yo La Tengo's musical tangents converging. Blending a selection of idiosyncratic covers with different versions of some of the band's back catalogue, the acoustic album is straight-up heavenly. Covers range from familiar (Kinks), to merely overlooked (Gene Clark, Flamin’ Groovies) to absolutely obscure (Rex Garvin and the Mighty Cravers, the Escorts, the Scene is Now) and shed light on a vast array of Yo La Tengo 's touchstones.

Yo La Tengo's revolving door of bassists (which included Ui’s Wilbo Wright, Dave Schramm and Chris Stamey) halts as former Christmas member James McNew signs on after the release of That Is Yo La Tengo EP (City Slang, Germany). McNew originally joined as a fill-in for a four-week European tour, but his shared passion for BBQ joints and television comedy, especially The Simpsons and Canadian exports SCTV and The Kids in the Hall, makes him a perfect fit.

Yo La Tengo buys a van. According to Kaplan, the purchase is a big step. “That was really the first time we promised anyone — in this case, a bank — that we'd continue to be a band for the next four years and pay off this loan,” he says. “It seemed like a long time back then. But we still have the van.” The trio records its stellar May I Sing With Me (Alias) album in Boston at Fort Apache with Lou Giordano engineer and Gene Holder producing. The album kicks out the jams, especially the nine-minute feedback saga “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss,” and balances out that extreme with the luminous instrumental “Detouring America With Horns” and Hubley-sung ballad “Satellite.” “Sometimes it takes us a while to see where Georgia can sing, but there's always a desire to have her sing more,” Kaplan says. May I Sing With Me album tracks “Always Something” and “Some Kinda Fatigue,” are used in director Hal Hartley’s film Simple Men. A friend from Kaplan's university days, the American filmmaker includes later single “Shaker” in his 1995 film Amateur.

Yo La Tengo signs with Matador and releases Painful, which once again balances wispy dream-pop ballads and fuzzed-out shoegazer anthems, only this time the guitar squalls are less soundscapes and more fully-evolved songs. Following the President Yo La Tengo model, the album is book-ended by radically opposed renditions of “Big Day Coming,” an organ-driven drone and a guitar outing that should have been the alternative rock song of the year. The EP for the album’s single “From A Motel 6” includes an un-credited remix of the song that was hot-wired by Steve Fisk. The EP also includes a cover of Jad and David Fair's song “Ashes on the Ground.” Kaplan says Yo La Tengo members all first encountered Jad Fair, with whom they have frequently recorded throughout the decade, as fans. Kaplan wrote Fair a letter in 1984 after first hearing Half Gentleman, Half Beasts. “It was probably half a fan letter and half a request for a free record,” he explains. “The first time Half Japanese came to New York, it was at my instigation. They played at Maxwell's. I certainly didn't book the club, but I had the ear of the guy who did.”

Fortified by take-out from Prince's Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, the trio records another batch of shimmering folk and sonic experimentation with Electr-O-Pura, where the band's BBQ jones comes through loud and clear on “Flying Lession (Hot Chicken #1)” and “Don't Say a Word (Hot Chicken #2).” “Starting with Electr-O-Pura, we started recording much more than we could put on a record,” Kaplan says. “The album ended up with songs that we never expected to be on it, while ones we thought would be on for sure were left off. We try and keep an open mind about what the record will be. The last time we recorded a record where we knew what would be it was Painful. There was maybe one song we recorded that wasn't included for some reason.” The freeform creative process starts to shape the dramatic arc of albums. The Nashville recording sessions end with Yo La Tengo plowing through covers, including Wire's “Too Late,” the Monkees “Gonna Buy Me a Dog,” and the Dead C's “Bad Politics,” which was released as the B-side to the album's “Tom Courtenay” single and features McNew on vocals.

The band cleans house, reissuing Ride the Tiger, President Yo La Tengo and New Wave Hot Dogs, and producing a 28-song compilation set of B-sides, outtakes, compilation tracks and other stuff hardly anyone heard, on Matador. The two-CD odds and sods collection (one vocal, one instrumental) puts the band's affinity for SCTV out in public domain by borrowing the album’s name from Jackie Rogers Jr.: Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo. The band's other major appearance this year also had a Canadian connection, when Kaplan, Hubley and McNew (along with Tara Key) stand in for the Factory-era Velvet Underground in Canadian director Mary Harron's film I Shot Andy Warhol.

Priming the pump for the 65 minutes of beautiful noise and examinations of love and doubt featured on I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, Yo La Tengo releases the album's debut single, “Autumn Sweater,” with remixes by the likes of µ-Ziq, Kevin Shields and Tortoise members Bundy K. Brown and Doug McCombs. “I thought that was a really good introduction to the record,” Kaplan says. “It's kind of hard to put out a pre-release single, which people are going to look at as some sort of indicator of what the record is going to be like. In that case, it was probably a better introduction to the album that a typical pre-release single.”

The Jad Fair sessions recorded throughout the ‘90s finally see the light of day with the release of Strange But True. With song titles and lyrics fresh from the headlines of supermarket tabloids, the disc features songs like “Helpful Monkey Wallpapers Entire House” and “Principal Punishes Students with Bad Impressions and Tired Jokes.” The release comes during the band's fallow stage. “Somehow we've managed to be a band for three years without touring or releasing records,” Kaplan says. “It's not like we didn't see each other for two years and then got together. We were playing pretty consistently that whole time, and I think we were enjoying the aimlessness of our playing. To varying degrees and at various times, we felt the next record as sort of a looming presence, but were able to block it out. Similar to the way we have enjoyed the opportunity to take our time making records, I think we were enjoying taking our time between making records.”

Aside from being a part-time wedding band in 1999, the trio hooked up with the horn section of Roy Campbell, Daniel Carter, and Sabir Mateen to produce two long songs, “NOW 2000” and “Excalibur 2001,” that were released in February on the band’s Egon label. The atmospheric nature and sparse sound of the band's new Matador album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, presented the band with some questions about how to tour the material. The band is currently mounting two tours — a special junket to present a fitting rendition of the new album (including March 3 in Toronto), and a more traditional tour that will blend quieter new material with up-tempo rock numbers. “The first tour is going to be a quintet with David Kilgour and Mac MacCaughan, concentrating more on the quiet side of what we do. It will allow us to play more of the new record than we would probably be inclined to in a crowded rock club. We want to be careful not to be butting heads with an audience. Normally the tours are more geographic in their strategy; this is more thematic. The new album is forcing the band's hand to find a new way to tour.”