President Yo La Tengo
What does it mean when rock’s greatest working band barely rises above a whisper?
The Yo La Tengo we know and love, with the bassist who sings “Stockholm Syndrome,” turned 30 last year.
But in 2024, the entire institution by that curious name, the musical partnership started by Georgia Hubley and former New York Rocker critic Ira Kaplan, turns 40. It was with that 1992 addition of James McNew and the subsequent release of Painful that, as Kaplan has noted, “this group really got started,” and it’s true; Popular Songs is the only unlovable full-length they’ve made since, and it still has “Periodically Double or Triple” and “If It’s True.” They conquer by two methods: A catalog of albums whose greatness is so subtle and slow-burning that it could take you reams of last.fm data to realize you’ve relied on them at least once a week for decades, and stupendously dynamic and humorous live shows that take you by surprise even so.
Their first set on March 17th at Philly’s Union Transfer was the quietest I’ve ever seen them — the anti-St. Patrick’s Day I needed. It was dominated by their excellent new 17th(!) album This Stupid World, which is actually quite loud for them. Not that it rocks particularly, though they saved the Nuggets-worthy “Fallout” and the teeth-gnashing title track for the feedback-swollen later set. But it grinds; they opened with the opener, “Sinatra Drive Breakdown,” which picks at a relatively nasty McNew bass vamp like a scab. The jumpy “Tonight’s Episode” followed, haunted by extra dubby organ and locked in like nothing Stereolab managed at a comparably lifeless show last year.
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo on KEXP
Things only got more delicate after that: Ira paused some rice-paper fragile post-fusion organ chords on Georgia’s string-squeakingly minimal “Ashes” to just walk over and hit a cymbal once. He held Stuff Like That There’s acoustic “Awhileaway” like a baby and imbued Fade’s “I’ll Be Around” with extra float. With its springy bass and tambourine, “Satellite” sounded downright Peter, Paul and Mary. The new “Apology Letter” opened with one of Kaplan’s sharpest verses ever and closed with the quietest guitar neck-spanking anyone’s ever seen. With its brushed drums it conjured the hushed, pitch-black backyard atmosphere of This Stupid World’s album art (ever notice their album covers depict nighttime when they sound that way? While Summer Sun is a delirious scorched blur).
The three-piece format was too sparse for “Aselestine” — the counterpoint guitar melodies weren’t available to give Georgia’s perfect double-duty extra lift — but the sold-out crowd wooed every time Georgia stood up at the mic, including the majestic, secretly drum’n’bass set closer “Miles Away,” which she closed out with some MIDI flute setting on the keyboard that was nonsensically perfect.
In the great tradition of Neil Young, the second set rocked. McNew sat down at the kit for “This Stupid World” to smash a tambourine among other things with mallets while Georgia fuzz-droned the room to ash and Ira did his jazz-hands-string-feedback schtick, strumming furiously without fretting a thing. They changed instruments immediately into the dual identity of a well-harmonized “We’re an American Band,” with Kaplan’s most bombs-bursting-in-air solo of the evening followed by the slash-and-burn climax of “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1),” their most kickass song.
Even when they got to the much-maligned masterpiece Summer Sun, things were too giddy to simmer down. Ira’s honking organ drowned out James’ acoustic on “Season of the Shark” and “Today Is the Day” rocked with squealing guitar to huge cheers. Non-album rave-up “Shaker” stomped and by then I had to stop taking notes and give myself over the roaring majesty of “Double Dare,” “Sugarcube,” and more than 15 minutes of McNew throbbing his way through “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” The covers selection comprising the encore couldn’t have been more Yo La Tengo: The Undertones’ “Teenage Kicks” for St. Patrick’s Day (Ira:“There’s not a drop of green on any of us but nevertheless”), Sun Ra’s funky “Rocket #9,” and finally, Daniel Johnston’s beloved “Speeding Motorcycle.” The nearly three-hour show was astounding and comprehensive in an almost mortality-conscious way — our heroes of the hour are 66, 63 and 53 — and yet there was not one single repeat song from the set I witnessed last year that I considered an all-timer and wrote “it may be time to look at Yo La Tengo as the best band in the world.”
Now that This Stupid World has returned them to the BNM fore, I concur with myself. Sonic Youth is my favorite band, but at this rate I’m not sure they always will be. For sure, Yo La Tengo know how to do more things. Like their square-mile home base they sound like Hoboken contained, miniaturizing a three-quarter century of free jazz, counterculture, college rock, electric folk, metal machine music, and motor-oil-stained, Wild Honey-style soul boogie. The key to their longevity, their show pacing, their omnivorous musical success is their mastery of both songwriting and grooves in tandem. They know when to deploy which. Their noise-pop isn’t always both: This Stupid World drops in four minutes of heaven like “Aselestine” or “Fallout” right when you need to snap out of jam hypnosis. Magnum opus-by-accreditation I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One worked largely the same way. When you need a distorted drone, there comes a careening one-note solo in the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda.” When you’re starting to feel weary of prolonged organ weirdness, there’s the perfect bossa-nova pop ditty “Center of Gravity.”
Most of their best albums follow this sweet-and-sour trick in different amounts: The serene stillness of …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is blown away by the we-have-disco-at-home “You Can Have It All” and the peeled-out rock of “Cherry Chapstick.” Summer Sun breaks up its languid ambience with funky exercises like “Moonrock Mambo” and “Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo.” I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass has a glistening lake in the center called “Daphinia” between huge slabs of garage rock’n’soul, including bookending ten-minute-plus workouts. Popular Songs stumbled by sticking three of their least distinguished extended jams all at the end, but 2020’s pure-feedback We Have Amnesia Sometimes is more beautiful than Lou Reed could have imagined.
So the decisive factor in Yo La Tengo’s discography often comes down to the albums’ shape. Before McNew was part of the braintrust, highlights like “Upside Down” and “Drug Test” weren’t coalesced into a great whole, and the jams lacked distinct flavors. That was well-ironed-out by the flawless Electr-O-Pura, and now their unabashed skill for layering and packaging their quirks between strokes of amazing, historically-aware pop songwriting is unparalleled.
As they are wont to do, This Stupid World 180s from their most electronic album to date, There’s a Riot Going On, which leaned on softness and tropical esoterica, to self-produced jamming-in-a-room, with their most abrasive sonics in at least a decade. There’s still plenty of jittery dub and textural tricks; they never do just one thing. But they know everything they can do, and it’s a lot.
Well past a half-century in this stupid world, they’re not going to stop. They’re an American band.
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