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15 Years Better: Yo La Tengo

By Dan Keating

Can you think of a band that keeps getting better after 15 years? The Hoboken trio Yo La Tengo is the only band that I can think of. Their albums have ranged from stripped down folk rock to Sonic Youth style walls of noise; from tight pop songs to sprawling instrumentals; from Punk rave ups to what can only be called organic electronica. While they have whole albums devoted to each of these styles, on their 1997 masterpiece I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, they pulled off all them. They have been recording together since 1986, and this is the place to start your Yo La Tengo collection. Yo La Tengo has created a body of work that is always challenging and always satisfying, whatever they try.

On their new album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, Yo La Tengo is charting territory that's not quite rock and roll, not quite ambient sounds, not quite confessional soft rock, not quite experimental, not quite jazz. They are in a place that is all their own. No one takes the lead. You can see the band in the studio saying, "Turn me down, please," not very rock and roll. They are way more concerned with atmosphere than lunkhead riffs. Sonically the album is very consistent -- it has a quiet, dark, nocturnal sound to it. Electronic noises complement soft beautiful melodies. Ira Kaplan's ambient guitar and keyboard wanderings are held together by James McNew's anchoring bass, and Georgia Hubley's rock solid drumming. One song has layers of organ, the next a prominent xylophone, the next a soft guitar, the next just a backbone of vocal "ba-ba-da's." The instruments and styles always vary, but the songs are unmistakably theirs.

What holds it together is the lyrics. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are married and the record has an almost concept-album feel to it in that all of the songs seem to be about their relationship. The beautiful "Our Way to Fall" recounts the first time he laid eyes on her -- the shyness, the embarrassment -- and he sums it up with the thoughts "Try, Try, even if it lasts an hour." Later, on "The Crying of Lot G," they veer off into a fight, "You don't want to listen and I can't shut up... all I ask of you is that you try and remember, it isn't always this way." It's this straightforward, confessional, honest, and romantic style that separates Yo La Tengo from this age of irony.

Recently, in venues such as the Somerville Theater in Cambridge, Massachusetts and the Town Hall in NYC, Yo La Tengo was both bigger and quieter. Bigger because the band has added two touring musicians for this quick "Sit Down" tour of theaters, and quieter because this batch of songs is intimate. Mac McCaughan of the indie vets Superchunk and David Kilgour of the Clean joined the band for the tour. For me, before I got to the show, it was bittersweet, having these extra hands. At past Yo La Tengo performances, I always marveled at the amount of sound that just these three people could create. Watching James McNew play the maracas and the bass at the same time, or hop from bass to drums within the song, even if it was for just a little touch, was always enjoyable. Adding these extra musicians seemed a bit like cheating.

So, I was relieved when I saw how Yo La Tengo used these additional players to broaden their sound, to attempt songs that I'd never seen them play live before. The two musicians stayed in line with the rest of the band, not playing at all on certain songs, or adding just a quiet xylophone, or a subtle clip of feedback. But they allowed the band to try things that would be impossible with just the three of them. They tackled the quiet version of "Big Day Coming" and off of the near-masterpiece "Painful" (1993) with its hypnotic organ riff and layers of feedback. The 5 players charged into "Moby Octopad, " a rhythmically complex song from I Can Hear The Heart. They mainly stuck to the quieter songs off of the new record, but found some time for fun. Besides the constant switching of instruments, Ira and James had a choreographed dance routine for the mostly a cappella cover of George McRae's "You Can Have it All." And speaking of covers (no Yo La Tengo show is complete without them) the band finished the night with a feedback drenched rave up cover of Jackson Browne's "Somebody's Baby," which appears on their fine outtakes record Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo (1996).

They opened the evening at the Town Hall with the new album's closer, "Night Falls on Hoboken," a 17 minute song that manages to never crest, never peak, never fall apart, never bore, never really change, but always remain interesting. Kind of like the band themselves.