If there is such a thing as a dinosaur of indie rock, then Yo La Tengo may be one.
Back in the '70s, monstrously popular bands such as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin were mocked by some music fans as dinosaurs of rock, and derided for their pomposity. Yo La Tengo doesn't deserve such ridicule; for one thing, it has never sold millions of records nor undertaken environmentally disastrous stadium tours.
After 20 years, however, the Hoboken, N.J., trio occupies a space within alternative-music culture comparable to the Grateful Dead's standing among hippies. Each album it releases, including 2006's I'm Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, charts high on many music critics' year-end lists. In 2002, absurdist news source the Onion published a fake article titled, "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster." The story imagined a roof collapsing during a Yo La Tengo show at the 40 Watt Club in Athens.
Yo La Tengo earned its august reputation among music geeks through sonic adventurism. It has recorded cover albums full of obscurities (1990's Fakebook), ambient indietronica (2002's wondrous The Sounds of the Sounds of Science) and incandescent pop rock (2003's Summer Sun, which drew uncharacteristically mixed reviews). I Will Beat Your Ass is all over the map, ranging from densely funky piano soul to winding jazz fusion reminiscent of the Electric Soft Parade.
Guitarist and lead songwriter/vocalist Ira Kaplan, who shares Yo La Tengo with his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew, feigns ignorance of the band's popularity. I Will Beat Your Ass peaked at No. 66 on the Billboard top album chart. "I don't spend a lot of time doing market research, so I don't really know who's buying our records and why," he says. "I don't know the precise impact that any of this stuff has."
Kaplan contradicts the band's image as virtuosic eclectics, too. "We're not that good at playing our instruments. We're OK at it, but we're hardly the Paul Shaffer band or the Max Weinberg band," he says. Yo La Tengo's songwriting formula is simple: It jams, comes up with a good idea, and then arranges a tune around it. Kaplan often sings nonsense words while the band composes the music, and adds lyrics later.
For example, with "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" from I Will Beat Your Ass, Kaplan says, "We happened to start playing, and everything about that song, except for the lyrics, happened right away." That perfunctory explanation, however, doesn't capture the song's 10-minute blast of feedback and melodic drone, and how Kaplan plays a furiously psychedelic guitar solo while singing cryptic lyrics about domesticity and sliding on a waterslide.
Yo La Tengo means "I have it" in Spanish. The phrase is sports legend: Outfielder Richie Ashburn of the 1962 New York Mets allegedly shouted it to Venezuelan teammate Elio Chacón as both haplessly pursued fly balls. Concurrently, the album title for I Will Beat Your Ass is reportedly inspired by an argument between New York Knicks players Stephon Marbury and (former Knick) Tim Thomas.
Such curious details mark Yo La Tengo as musical collectors, a trio as enthusiastic about rare vinyl and arcane pop-culture trivia as its fans. Kaplan tells a story about rummaging through his 45-inch singles; he estimates he has thousands of records.
"There's one I'm looking for. I still haven't found it, but in the course of it I've started trying to organize other ones, alphabetizing things like crazy and pulling out records I haven't thought about in a long time," he says. "One of the advantages of having things so disorganized is just, like, 'Oh yeah, I haven't thought about that record forever.' You just bump into it. It's like bumping into an old friend on the street."
ON THE WEB
To hear Yo La Tengo's "I Feel Like Going Home," click here.
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Thank you, Maurice!