Hoboken’s greatest band made sure you remembered their name in ’95
Yo La Tengo fell in love with sound, and probably to it, too.
Up to this point, that’s what they were primarily known for, if they were known at all: squealing, rattling, hyper-ventilating guitar effects ripping through otherwise shy indie noise like “From a Motel 6” and “Barnaby, Hardly Working.”
They had no-fuss pop songs under their belt (“Upside Down”) and a whole bunch of record collectors’ dream covers (Fakebook featured nods to Have Moicy! and Daniel Johnston alike) . But what they’d only just acquired was bassist James McNew, and who would’ve thought a musical and literal marriage like Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley had needed glue? Suddenly, their Matador debut Painful marked the real start of the band six albums in, the one we know today that let the sounds speak: tidal waves of organ and feedback that the vocal equivalent of mice could murmur over comfortably.
But where Painful was beholden to its sonics, the even more excellent 1995 follow-up Electr-O-Pura is what reined them in, wrestled into song-shaped deliverables like balloon animals. “Decora” is the perfect opening title, as backwards percussion and off-meter guitar tremolos set the stage for the Hubley’s gorgeous melody, which Jeff Tweedy would bite seven years later for “Radio Cure.” Anchored by McNew’s thudding bass, Hubley’s own steeled backbeat, and Kaplan’s guitar leads, hooks and nervous breakdowns, her wordless chorus sounds has that new-day-rising feel, like a birth.
Then it’s off to the nearly seven-minute Sonic Youth homage “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1),” which builds to unquestionably the heaviest, hardest-rocking moment of Yo La Tengo’s three-decade career. This is where Painful’s woozy droning learns takeoff and dynamics, juxtaposing string-squeaking ballads like “Pablo and Andrea” with needle-breaking malfunctions like “False Ending” and the endlessly-quotable-if-you-can-make-out-the-words “Attack on Love,” from “Let’s go change, you hokey little runt who wanted to dance” to “what’s your name? What bothers you today? Are you ready for a little something to do?”
Of course, Yo La Tengo’s first masterpiece also contained their first pop masterpiece, “Tom Courtenay,” which you know for its ba-ba-bas if nothing else, though it’s very possible you’ve sung along with its most noticeable free-floating signifiers: “Now I’m looking for a lucky charm,” “gonna take its toll,” and of course, that opening grabber, “Julie Christie, the rumors are true.” Right before that is the lovely, Another Green World-indebted “The Hour Grows Late,” which, along with the sparse, romantic “My Heart’s Reflection” set their “adult” career in motion, the nighttime beauty miners we’d really come to appreciate on …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, which turned 20 a couple months ago.
VIDEO: Yo La Tengo Live at Newbury Comics in Boston, Massachusetts 5/20/95
But between extended jams like the fan-favorite closer “Blue Line Swinger” and the ebullient garage crackle of “(Straight Down to the) Bitter End,” Electr-O-Pura’s best moment of all may be the modest “Paul Is Dead,” which doesn’t break two and a half minutes. Drumless three-part harmony woo-woos like their beloved Beach Boys behind Ira Kaplan’s beloved Lou Reed sprechgesang, with — what else? — organ filling in the quietly rich melody, titled after an obvious music-nerd reference to boot.
Electr-O-Pura often gets overshined by its bookends, the indie-favorite Painful and the everybody-favorite I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, which brought on perfect producer Roger Moutenot once again and expanded (nay, exploded) their sound considerably in 20 directions, only a few of which employed droning organ. But their 1995 perfect-ten was a rightful apotheosis of the full kaleidoscopic rainbow that three shy virtuoso geeks could achieve with just three voices, feedback-capitulating guitar, insistent, Velvets-inspired bass and drums. And organ, of course.
AUDIO: Yo La Tengo Electr-O-Pura (full album)