The Guide To Getting into Yo La Tengo
For well over 30 years, these indie rock stalwarts have consistently and quietly reinvented themselves without ever losing their charm, humour, and great songwriting.
Araya Diaz / Getty Contributor
At first glance, Yo La Tengo’s career feels completely daunting to dive into. With well over 30 years, and with 15 albums, countless singles, compilations, collaborations, soundtracks, and so forth, the Hoboken, New Jersey indie rock trio has rarely sat still in their storied and delightfully eclectic career. With the original husband-and-wife duo of guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, along with James McNew (who joined the band in 1991 before Yo La Tengo’s fifth album May I Sing With Me and after they had already cycled through 14 bassists), the sheer number of releases shouldn’t scare away any new listeners.
Formed in 1984, Yo La Tengo, named after what the New York Mets’ Venezuelan shortstop Elio Chacón would yell to catch a foul ball, played its first show at Maxwell’s, the Hoboken dive bar and 200-cap concert venue. It's where Kaplan and Hubley met two years prior and it would become the spiritual home for the band until it officially closed in 2013 (it reopened under new owners shortly after but it closed again in February 2018). Throughout their career, the band would keep Hoboken their home and consistently straddle the line between critical acclaim and near-commercial success. While they never completely broke through, Yo La Tengo established a reputation as some of the most adventurous indie rock veterans of the past few decades.
Because the members of Yo La Tengo were all indie rock scene mainstays, taking jobs like rock critic, graphic designer, record store clerk, zine editor, soundman, DJ, and many more, their zeal for music pushed the band in countless directions over their longstanding run. Their history exhaustively and lovingly detailed in Jesse Jarnow’s essential 2011 book Big Day Coming, Yo La Tengo jumped from bouncy, fuzzed-out indie rock to understated covers-laden folk rock to subdued and brooding indie pop to so many genre-experiments and adventures in between. Their latest, the Sly Stone-referencing There’s A Riot Going On, out March 16 via their longtime label Matador (their home for 25 years), shows a band that’s still endlessly curious, still clever, and still letting everyone in on the joke. It’s a band that’s endured countless changes in the music industry, from the R.E.M.-led indie rock explosions to the MP3 and streaming-era but has stubbornly endured with each shift.
There’s a reason that in 2003, The Onion poked fun at the band and its fans writing 37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster. While the band might possibly disagree with this assessment, they’ve been avatars of indie rock record nerds for decades now and as a result, their catalog is even more seemingly impenetrable. But fear not! Yo La Tengo’s catalog is actually extremely accessible. Even with the sheer number of full-lengths, compilations, soundtracks, covers, and oddities, there’s actually never been a dud. Every album has its charms and while diving in seems like a herculean task, Noisey is here to give you a basic introduction to one of indie rock’s most respected acts. While there’s a good-to-great chance your favourite Yo La Tengo song or anecdote is not included in this round up, every gateway to the band is different thanks to so many charming songs, stories, and shows the band has given us this since 1984.
So you want to get into: Catchy Guitar-Pop Yo La Tengo
One way to get into Yo La Tengo is to dive into the middle of the band’s career and work in either direction from there, starting with arguably the band’s two most critically-acclaimed LPs in 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One or 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. While that’s solid advice as those albums show the band at the peak of their powers, there’s a special charm in first checking out the band’s bread-and-butter: expertly constructed and concise pop songs disguised as straightforward rockers.
Though Yo La Tengo have gone through over a dozen bassists, several ups-and-downs, sonic experiments, and over three decades together as a band, there’s still a line connecting their 1986 debut Ride The Tiger opener “The Cone of Silence” to “For You Too,” their driving recent single off There’s A Riot Going On. While Kaplan’s considerably a much stronger songwriter and a much more confident guitar player, both songs combine memorable melodies with knotty and jangly riffs. Hardcore fans of bands like NRBQ, their NYC-friends The dBs, and New Jersey compatriots The Feelies, there’s a similar buoyant energy to so many of Yo La Tengo’s offerings.
It’s a winning combination on so many of Yo La Tengo’s best songs, from the shoegaze-inflected squall of 1993’s Painful highlight “From A Motel 6” to perhaps their most instantly accessible song 1995’s Electr-o-pura cut “Tom Courtenay” or the fuzzed out banger “Sugarcube” off I Can Hear The Heart...Elsewhere, early rippers like “Barnaby, Hardly Working,” “Drug Test,” and “Upside-Down” nestle in nicely with the latter day bops like the Hubley-led “Madeline” and the understated gem “Well You Better” from 2013’s Fade.
Playlist: “Ohm” / “From A Motel 6” / “The Cone of Silence” / "Tom Courtenay” / “Upside-Down” / “Sugarcube” / “Double Dare” / “Barnaby, Hardly Working” / “Drug Test” / “Madeline” / “Little Eyes” / “The Summer” / “Nothing To Hide” / “Well You Better” / “For You Too”
So you want to get into: Hushed and Subdued Yo La Tengo?
Yo La Tengo is at its best when the amps are turned down and the songs occupy quieter territory. When the band released their fourth album Fakebook in 1990, they added a folk-rock gloss over their scrappy brand of indie rock, sprinkling in acoustic-led originals like “Did I Tell You” alongside covers by The Kinks, Cat Stevens, NRBQ, and more. It marked a new direction that the band would explore more in-depth on the 11 albums to come.
Painful, the best encapsulation of early Yo La Tengo, tinkered with and dramatically improved on what Fakebook hinted at. Opener “Big Day Coming,” one of the band’s most iconic songs, kicked off with a defacto mission statement from Kaplan, when he sings over a looping keyboard melody, “Let’s be undecided / let’s take our time.” While the band was prone to guitar-based noise freakouts and searing feedback, there was just as strong an inclination for patient songwriting and minimalist arrangements.
Other stellar Yo La Tengo LPs, like the masterpiece And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out along with the underrated 2003 Summer Sun, which exuded melancholy rather than the breeziness its title suggests, explored the quiet moments further without ever resorting to rocking out. Highlights like the whispered intimacy of “Our Way To Fall,” the plaintive, Pynchon-referencing “The Crying of Lot G,” and the sprawling, near 18-minute “Night Falls on Hoboken” proved that And Then Nothing… could demand attention while rarely going over a whisper. The same goes for the woozy guitars on “Today Is The Day” or the wistful pop of “Season of the Shark” on Summer Sun.
Playlist: “Big Day Coming” / “Our Way To Fall” / “I’ll Be Around” / “Nowhere Near” / “Did I Tell You” / “Season of the Shark” / "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House” / “Don’t Say A Word (Hot Chicken #2)” / “Saturday” / “Today Is The Day” / “The Crying of Lot G” / “Damage” / “Shades of Blue” / “Green Arrow” / “Night Falls On Hoboken”
So you want to get into: Blistering Feedback Freaks Yo La Tengo?
There’s a constant thread throughout Yo La Tengo’s discography where the band stretches out and envelops their songs in an ear-piercing wall of feedback, noise, and guitars. These songs work as extended jams and often serve as album centrepieces: the kinds of dramatic epics that result in a climax where you can practically envision Kaplan wailing on his Fender Jazzmaster. Where one side of band found beauty in subtlety, quietude, and patience, the other side saw blinding blasts of noise that are as disorienting as they are mesmerising.
While the “Big Day Coming” that opens Painful is a subdued and keyboard anchored brooder, the second version of it, which sets up the album’s closer “I Heard You Looking” (also included in this section), is a cacophonous distortion-forward jammer. Not the first or last time the band would rework, reimagine, and re-release their own material (see the different versions of “Barnaby, Hardly Working” or “The Ballad of Red Buckets”), the song(s) not only highlighted the different sides of the band but also how the band could display those different sides seamlessly on the same album. Here on the second version, Kaplan’s lyric, “Let's turn up our amps / The way that we used to / Without a plan” serves as yet another mission statement.
Another example is the purposely misspelled track “The Story of Yo La Tango” (a clever nod at early show fliers, talk show hosts, and others messing up the band’s name and pronunciation). It expands for nearly 12 minutes, guitar solos emerging past the wall of fuzz that practically overpower Kaplan’s voice. A common set closer at Yo La Tengo shows, “The Story of Yo La Tango” showcases the band’s flair for dramatic build-ups and cathartic songwriting. Other songs, like I Can Hear The Heart Beating... favourite “We’re An American Band” is a Grand Funk Railroad homage in title only, as it’s a masterclass in quietly building up tension to a brutally beautiful conclusion. Abrasive or intimate, Yo La Tengo could be everything at once.
Playlist: “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” / “Deeper Into Movies” / “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss” / “The Story of Jazz” / “Cherry Chapstick” / “The Story of Yo La Tango” / “I Heard You Looking” / “We’re An American Band” / “Big Day Coming [Second Version]” / “Blue Line Swinger”
So you want to get into: Genre-Dabbling Yo La Tengo?
Ever the music obsessives, Yo La Tengo would consistently look elsewhere so the well of rock music inspiration never dried up. There are a wealth of examples of this throughout their career but the best instances come with their most-well known LP I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. With songs like “Moby Octopad,” which was named after noticing one of Moby’s electronic drum instruments side stage during their run on Lollapalooza 1995’s traveling festival, there’s a tumbling bassline that feels like a futuristic take on post-punk. Elsewhere, a slinky bossa nova colours “Center of Gravity,” while there’s the percussive and propulsive rhythm of their best known single “Autumn Sweater,” and the Neil Young-esque vocal turn from bassist James McNew on “Stockholm Syndrome.”
2006’s cheekily-titled I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass is one of Yo La Tengo’s most wildly-eclectic full-lengths. There’s the horn-and-falsetto featuring soul number “Mr. Tough” only a few tracks removed from the barreling garage rocker “Watch Out For Me Ronnie.” After that, the psychedelic groove that accents Hubley’s dry vocal delivery on closer “The Room Got Heavy” is one of the most thrilling and welcomely odd cuts of the band’s career. But really, this sort of sly experimentation has been with the band ever since their 1986 debut Ride the Tiger, exemplified on the woozy country bounce on “The River of Water.” Later on 1995’s Electr-o-pura, there are hints of Kaplan and Hubley’s early days of going to Boston to check out hardcore shows in the sub-two minute sonic assault of “Attack on Love”
Playlist: “You Are Here” / “Autumn Sweater” / “Mr. Tough” / “Here To Fall” / “Moby Octopad” / “Watch Out For Me Ronnie” / “Can’t Forget” / “Center of Gravity” / “The River of Water” / “Attack On Love” / “Periodically Double or Triple” / “Stockholm Syndrome” / “The Room Got Heavy”
So you want to get into: Cover Band Yo La Tengo?
The first time Hubley and Kaplan ever performed together was as Georgia and Some Guys in 1982, playing a selection covers from a collection of over 100 songs ranging from The Velvet Underground to Kiss, Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, and several other acts. Over that group’s year-long existence which later morphed into A Worrying Thing, and then Yo La Tengo, other people’s songs have always been integral to Hubley and Kaplan’s DNA. Over Yo La Tengo’s catalog, several unique renditions like their take on Harry Wayne Casey’s “You Can Have It All” (which is a highlight on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out) became as beloved as any of the band’s originals. Another essential Hubley rendition is her take on Darlene McCrea’s “My Heart’s Not In It” on Yo La Tengo’s 2015 covers-heavy LP Stuff Like That There. There’s an argument to be made for any number of these covers ending up on any of the previous categories on this guide, but throughout the band’s run, each cover fit nicely with every musical whim Yo La Tengo were pursuing.
From their origins as a cover band, Kaplan and Hubley have never shied away from lending their own takes on their favourite songs. But more than the fact that there’s still a healthy dose of non-originals in their setlists, like their iconic Hanukkah shows, their covers feel just as much of a reflection of the band’s ethos than any reverence to their musical forebears. Take for instance, Yo La Tengo’s twenty year tradition of doing all-request covers shows for WFMU’s fundraising marathons. Longtime friends of the iconic New Jersey radio station the shows perfectly fit the freewheeling and fun spirit of Yo La Tengo. As long as listeners pledged $100, the band would play any song requested. They played the marathon just weeks ago, covering Nico, The Stooges, Devo, and more. For further listening, check out their alter-egos Condo Fucks, which released the covers LP Fuckbook in 2009 and toured as recently as last year.
Playlist: “You Can Have It All” [Harry Wayne Casey cover] / “Roadrunner" [The Modern Lovers cover] / “Let’s Compromise” [Information cover] / “Griselda” [The Holy Modal Rounders cover] / “Dreams” [Fleetwood Mac cover] / “Little Honda” [The Beach Boys cover] / “Friday I’m In Love” [The Cure cover] / “Speeding Motorcycle” [Daniel Johnston cover] / “What Can I Say” [NRBQ cover] / “My Heart’s Not In It” [Darlene McCrea cover] / “Oklahoma U.S.A” [The Kinks cover] / “I Threw It All Away” [Bob Dylan cover] / “Here Comes My Baby” [Cat Stevens cover] / “Nuclear War - Version 2” [Sun Ra cover]
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This article originally appeared on Noisey US.