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Yo La Tengo

Modern-day architects of the alternative indie-rock scene, YO LA TENGO – meaning “I’ve got it” in Spanish – have become synonymous with art-house film soundtracks by Hal Hartley as much as being fave raves of a solid and tight-knit following. Amassing over a dozen albums stretched out over nearly three decades (2013’s “Fade” bolted into the Top 30!), enduring husband-and-wife team Ira Kaplan (vocals/guitar) and Georgia Hubley (drums/percussion/vocals), plus a revolving-door of bassists that stabilised with James McNew, in 1992, the trio looked to have slowly but surely earned their place among the indie elite.
Formed in 1984, in Hoboken, New Jersey (once place to Frank Sinatra), Ira and Georgia placed an ad in a local rag, requesting musicians into ARTHUR LEE, MISSION OF BURMA and The SOFT BOYS, to apply: lead/slide guitarist Dave Schramm and bassist Dave Rick were duly chosen. Significantly, a re-vamp of LOVE’s `A House Is Not A Motel’ (their first in a multitude of covers) found its way on to the flipside of debut 45, `The River Of Love’, although the recordings were the only ones to feature Rick, superseded as he was by seasoned campaigner Mike Lewis (ex-DMZ, ex-LYRES and of The A-BONES).
This revised configuration emerged in 1986 with album numero uno, RIDE THE TIGER {*6}, a record produced by ex-MISSION OF BURMA’s Clint Conley that introduced the band’s countrified acoustic folk-rock which drew on the likes of The VELVET UNDERGROUND, The RAIN PARADE and of course, LOVE. Amazing and incredible as it may seem, among choice cuts, `The Cone Of Silence’, `The Forest Green’ and Scramm’s `The Way Some People Die’, were eclectic covers of YUNG WU’s `The Empty Pool’, The KINKS’ `Big Sky’ and PETE SEEGER’s `Living In The Country’.
Following the departure of Schramm and Lewis (replaced by bassist Stephan Wichnewski), Kaplan assumed writing duties for NEW WAVE HOT DOGS (1987) {*7}, providing the Coyote Records’ group with yet another credible and critically acclaimed album. Compared to The GO-BETWEENS on the country-tinged `Did I Tell You’, and featuring a cover of The VELVET UNDERGROUND’s `It’s Alright (The Way That You Live)’, the melodious set was played with added passion and conviction.
1989’s PRESIDENT YO LA TENGO {*7} was more experimental, a half-hour/7-song set that had to be propped up by producer Gene Holder, who filled in on bass when Stephan bailed after cutting two songs: `Orange Song’ (recorded at the CBGB’s) and the 10-minute [Pablo’s version] of `The Evil That Men Do’; incidentally, [Craig’s version] of the latter stretched to only a couple of minutes, while closing cut `I Threw It All Away’ was a cover of the DYLAN classic.
Unique and beguiling in its 5 retro-fied originals and 11 covers structure, FAKEBOOK (1990) {*7}, roped in fans from every generation; a couple of re-churned beauties coming through `Barnaby, Hardly Working’ (from their previous set) and the aforementioned `Did I Tell You’. Although there was no room for recent B-sides and rarities, `For The Turnstiles’ (NEIL YOUNG), `Cast A Shadow’ (BEAT HAPPENING) and `Kick Me Hard’ (NRBQ), Kaplan and Co matched up relatively unknown nuggets: `Yellow Sarong’ (The Scene Is Now), `The One To Cry’ (The ESCORTS), `Emulsified’ (Rex Garvin & The Mighty Cravers), `Griselda’ (PETER STAMPFEL), `Speeding Motorcycle’ (DANIEL JOHNSON) and `What Can I Say’ (NRBQ), with `Here Comes My Baby’ (CAT STEVENS), `Andalucia’ (JOHN CALE), `Oklahoma, U.S.A.’ (The KINKS), `You Tore Me Down’ (The FLAMIN’ GROOVIES) and `Tried So Hard’ (GENE CLARK).
When one-set-wonder Al Greller’s berth was filled by James McNew (ex-CHRISTMAS), the now-stable YO LA TENGO could have fun with feedback and noodling noise for the trippy Alias Records set, MAY I SING WITH ME (1992) {*7}. Featuring the lengthy `Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss’, `Sleeping Pill’ and `Five-Cornered Drone (Crispy Duck)’ – the latter track from their outstanding EP, `That Is Yo La Tengo’, the group merged pop and noise, and found them once again compared to the VU; check out also `Upside-Down’ and `Detouring America With Horns’.
When the ubiquitous Matador Records took YLT under their wing, elements of dream-pop shoegazing was evident on the trio’s next venture, PAINFUL (1993) {*8}. If The ONLY ONES fanbase had all but forgotten their classic, `The Whole Of The Law’, Kaplan and co’s version was also delicate and daring. Possibly inspired by MY BLOODY VALENTINE, SPIRITUALIZED or RIDE, the grinding `From A Hotel 6’, plus bookend tracks `Big Day Coming’ and `I Heard You Looking’, were both electrifying and stratospheric.
Taking an increasingly left-field direction, ELECTR-O-PURA (1995) {*6}, beat their drum further as the trio powered through unearthly delights such as the group-scribed `Tom Courtenay’ (name-checking the Brit actor together with The BEATLES), the heady `The Hour Grows Late’ and the amiable `Pablo And Andrea’.
Cameo-ing as an anonymous band not too far removed from The Velvets, the Mary Harron movie I Shot Andy Warhol, saw also a duet (on `Demons’) with Tara Key for the 1996 soundtrack. Filmmaker fan of the group, Hal Hartley, often invited YO LA TENGO to supply some songs for his movies (1992’s Simple Men, was one), while Georgia’s sister, Emily (a short filmmaker), did likewise.
Lasting two hours and split into two discs: vocal and instrumental, the rarities collection GENIUS + LOVE = YO LA TENGO (1996) {*6} provided a worthy stop-gap for the trio while they contemplated looking at other ways of defining their material. Of course, the set would be littered with covers, a daring instrumental lounge-surf rendition of the RAMONES’ `Blitzkrieg Bop’ was pitted together with JACKSON BROWNE’s `Somebody’s Baby’, JOHN CALE’s `Hanky Panky Nohow’ and WIRE’s `Too Late’.
Recorded in Nashville of all places, 1997’s I CAN HEAR THE HEART BEATING AS ONE {*9} was a sprawling set, delving as it did into electronic music (`Autumn Sweater’), welded together by a Molotov cocktail of shoegazing, ambient, noise, folk and bossa nova. In respective generic tracks, `Deeper Into Movies’, `Green Arrow’, `Sugarcube’, `One PM Again’ and `Center Gravity’, YLT had certainly covered all possible avenues, while re-vamps of `My Little Corner Of The World’ (a hit in 1960 for Anita Bryant) and The BEACH BOYS’ `Little Honda’, lifted Ira in the genius category.
Kicking off the millennium, YO LA TENGO slowed the pace down somewhat on the excellent AND THEN NOTHING TURNED ITSELF INSIDE-OUT (2000) {*9}. Taking the title from a SUN RA quote (they would subsequently cover his `Nuclear War’), critics frothed and drooled over best bits, `Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House’ (he of DAWN fame!), `Cherry Chap-stick’ and `Night Falls On Hoboken’; a version of KC & THE SUNSHINE BAND’s present to GEORGE McCRAE: `You Can Have It All’, sat well next to the slo-core, `Last Days Of Disco’. James McNew’s DUMP offshoot, meanwhile, were about to deliver their fourth album, “That Skinny Motherfucker With The High Voice” (2001); he’s since “dumped” a further lo-fi set, “A Grown-Ass Man” (2003).
Never frightened to bounce out something fresh and new, YO LA TENGO got all gloopy and gluey on their most cinematic-orientated workout for French underwater documentarian, Jean Painleve: THE SOUNDS OF THE SOUNDS OF SCIENCE (2002) {*7}. Premiered at the previous year’s San Francisco Film Festival, the aquatic ambience of several liquidy lengthy pieces were basically tailor-made for lovers of the soundtrack genre.
SUMMER SUN (2003) {*7} saw the group bubble under the Top 100 for the first time, while a fusion of Krautrock, jam-rock and sophisti-pop cemented the inventiveness of the soothing `Tiny Birds’, `Beach Party Tonight’, `Shadows’ and the 10-minute `Let’s Be Still’. While a few collaborative albums with JAD FAIR (“Strange But True”) and CHRIS STAMEY (“V.O.T.E.”), respectively, had been separated by half a dozen years, YO LA TENGO were also working to a tight schedule, having scored the music for no less than four films: Junebug (2005), Game 6 (2005), Old Joy (2006) and Shortbus (2006), the latter actually released but credited to Various Artists.
2006’s I AM NOT AFRAID OF YOU AND I WILL BEAT YOUR ASS {*8} secured them a Top 75 place; the opening 10 minutes of `Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind’ balancing the pop-fuelled CARAVAN-meets-WIRE-esque `Beanbag Chair’. Warm and intimate, YO LA TENGO show their playful side as various songs recalled The KINKS, MERCURY REV and The BYRDS.
Over the course of recent collections, etc., YLT had, or were about to dish out a plethora of cover versions, including `Can’t Seem To Make You Mine’ (The SEEDS), `For Shame Of Doing Wrong’ (RICHARD THOMPSON), `Bad Politics’ (The DEAD C), `Dreams’ (FLEETWOOD MAC), DREAMING (The Cosmic Rays), `Looney Tunes’ (Eddie Cantor), `How Much I’ve Lied’ (GRAM PARSONS), `By The Time It Gets Dark’ (SANDY DENNY), `Black Hole’ (The URINALS), `Be Thankful For What You Got’ (William DeVaughn), `We Are The Champions’ (QUEEN), `Let’s Compromise’ (Information), `I’m Your Puppet’ (Penn-Spooner), `I Saw The Light’ (TODD RUNDGREN) and `Move To California’ (Times New Viking).
Finding a way to pay homage to their heroes by way of further classic cover versions, the pseudonymous CONDO FUCKS splinter (from Connecticut!?) were invented to divulge Ira and Georgia’s alter-ego misgivings. 2009’s FUCKBOOK {*5} was intentionally un-mastered in a basement garage to take on songs once the bastion of SMALL FACES, The KINKS, The TROGGS, The BEACH BOYS, The FLAMIN’ GROOVIES, SLADE, The ELECTRIC EELS, RICHARD HELL, etc.
Drawing in some mainstream support, YO LA TENGO’s return, POPULAR SONGS (2009) {*7} verged on the trippy and melodic once again. Augmented at times by a string section, the Top 60 set was split into nine nifty numbers (including The MODERN LOVERS-ish `If It’s True’ and `Nothing To Hide’) and three prog-length cues to bring the set to an end: `More Stars Than There Are In Heaven’, `The Fireside’ and the 15-minute `And The Glitter Is Gone’.
A further vinyl-only score for the film, ADVENTURE (2009), was proof that YLT had not totally abandoned their filmic attributions, while fans of their cinematic compositions were in for a treat on their self-financed collective, THEY SHOOT, WE SCORE (2008) {*6}.
Popping out from their self-imposed musical exile, January 2013 saw YO LA TENGO get to grips with their indie-pop inclinations on FADE {*7}. Sounding like The PASTELS, TEENAGE FANCLUB and a plethora other post C-86 Caledonian acts, tricky tracks like `Is That Enough’, `Well You Better’ and opener `Ohm’, played to their pop contingent, while `I’ll Be Around’ and the Krautrock/TORTOISE-cloned `Stupid Things’, rocked the beat in their own inimitable wispy and whispery aplomb.
Happy to echo a concept that applied to 1990’s `Facebook’ (covers and re-workings) set, 2015’s 25th anniversary-type STUFF LIKE THAT THERE {*7} was hardly a shrinking violet of a sequel; lead guitarist Dave Schramm also made his session re-appearance. Old, new, (comprehensively) borrowed and (broodingly) blue, each track melted into the next; fresh piece `Rickety’ squeezed in between Darlene McCrea’s `My Heart’s Not In It’ and HANK WILLIAMS’ `I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, the other `Awhileaway’ enveloped by Special Pillow’s `Automatic Doom’ and The PARLIAMENTS’ `I Can Feel The Ice Melting’. Re-works of `All Your Secrets’, `The Ballad Of Red Buckets’ and `Deeper Into Movies’ were of the VU-meets-C&W variety, while further rainy-day heart-felt covers stemmed from The CURE (`Friday I’m In Love’), GREAT PLAINS (`Before We Stopped To Think’), The LOVIN’ SPOONFUL (`Butchie’s Tune’), ANTIETAM (`Naples’) and The Cosmic Rays with Le SUN RA and Arkestra (`Somebody’s In Love’).
© MC Strong 1997-2008/LCS // rev-up MCS Jan2014-Aug2015

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