New Wave Hot Dogs (Coyote/Twin/Tone ’87, Matador ‘96) Rating: B
Too much has been made of Ira Kaplan’s former occupation as a rock critic and his band’s affinity for The Velvet Underground. Yo La Tengo are, simply enough, a great rock n’ roll band, though their beginnings here are more modest than revelatory; a previous album, Ride The Tiger, was even less successful. Aside from a few mildly interesting and fittingly noisy Sonic Youth-Velvet Underground inspired attempts ("House Fall Down," Let's Compromise," "The Story Of Jazz"), most of New Wave Hot Dogs consists of charmingly low-key jangle rock, with achingly lovely songs like “Did I Tell You,” "No Water," and the all too brief instrumental “Lost In Bessemer” being particularly affecting. Still, the group hadn’t yet really found their own distinctive sound, and songs such as their Velvet Underground cover “It’s Alright (The Way That You Live)” and “3 Blocks From Groove Street” are pleasant but plain, in part because of Kaplan’s pedestrian vocals. Of the more upbeat/up-tempo songs, “Clunk,” “Serpentine,” and “A Shy Dog” are the best, relying on good grooves and easily discernible melodies rather than chaotic clutter, and New Wave Hot Dogs was an admirable second step from a band that would subsequently grow by leaps and bounds.
President Yo La Tengo (Coyote/Twin/Tone ’89, Matador ‘96) Rating: A-
From the great swirling riff that kicks off “Barnaby, Hardly Working,” it’s clear that the band was really onto something here. For one thing, luscious harmonies are added to the mix, taking advantage of drummer Georgia Hubley’s intoxicating voice on “Drug Test,” a catchy ode to drugs and the Grateful Dead, and “Alyda,” a breathy ballad on which the band successfully explores a softer side. Smartly, the band would continue to increase Hubley's singing responsibilities, as she's clearly superior in that capacity to Kaplan, whose vocals falter on the otherwise enjoyable rocker "Orange Song," a cover of an Antietam song. Secondly, Kaplan shows off some great guitar chops - has any indie rocker from the last 25 years, aside from maybe J. Mascis or Doug Martsch, done more to make the guitar solo cool than Kaplan? - particularly on the two versions of “The Evil That Men Do.” The moody first one slowly simmers with a touch of Ennio Morricone, while the second is the album’s centerpiece, 10+ minutes of gnarled guitar frenzy fueled by a distortion pedal set to overdrive. It’s a VU rip that’s indulgent as all hell, but there are some thrilling moments thrown into an unremittingly intense session. The languid Bob Dylan cover “I Threw It All Away” then nicely closes out a short album (31 minutes) that’s bursting with cool ideas. Note: In 1996 Matador released President Yo La Tengo/New Wave Hot Dogs together (in reverse chronological order), also adding “The Asparagus Song” single.
Fakebook (Bar/None ’90) Rating: A-
This curveball from our favorite Hoboken couple was a courageous left turn that's far removed from anything else in the Yo La Tengo catalog. Revealing rock critic roots and an extensive record collection, Yo La Tengo covers 11 obscurities from critically acclaimed artists such as Cat Stevens, the Flamin' Groovies, the Flying Burrito Brothers, the Kinks, John Cale, Gene Clark, NRBQ, and Daniel Johnston, while adding three of their own new songs and remaking two previous songs, “Barnaby, Hardly Working" and “Did I Tell You.” Most of these little known songs will sound like fresh originals to most people, and the simple, spare arrangements have a down home, cottage campfire feel that quietly engages. Some of the songs have a countrified feel, but there’s also simple ‘60s styled pop and catchy sing songy folk, though a couple of the more upbeat songs seem slightly out of place, particularly the riotous “Monster Mash” rip “Emulsified.” Mostly, though, we’re treated to sleepy acoustic (and electric) songs that show that Kaplan doesn’t need to be engulfed in feedback to demonstrate a seductive guitar mastery. He’s also become a fine singer, while wife Georgia lends lovely harmonies and sings lead occasionally as well; there are also a few duets. My personal favorites are probably “You Tore Me Down” and “Did I Tell You,” but this subdued collection is consistently charming (if occasionally a bit boring) and agreeably low-key, making it a left turn that scores a bulls eye.
May I Sing With Me (Alias ’92) Rating: B
The critics were pretty harsh on this one, and May I Sing With Me was indeed their weakest '90s effort. The reason is simple: despite a welcome permanent new addition in bass player James McNew (recommendation: check out his Dump side project), there’s too much indulgent guitar on this album and not enough memorable tunes. Don't get me wrong: Kaplan is a great guitarist, and he makes even the two (!) 9+ minute instrumentals better than they have any right to be. That said, there's a reason my wife gives me dirty looks whenever I play "Mushroom Cloud Of His," the noisier of the two, while "Sleeping Pill" is likewise built around droney swells of distortion and feedback. All in all, this album delivers too much of a good thing (rare is the song on which Kaplan doesn't noisily interject, sometimes inappropriately), and though there are things I appreciate about the album, such as Hubley singing extensively and getting more aggressive behind the drum kit, and the band further exploring the "dreampop" style that they would fully embrace on Painful, too often it sounds like they're winging it without any real plan. Fortunately, when this tremendously talented band gets their groove going on songs such as "Detouring America With Horns" and "Five-Cornered Drone (Crispy Duck)," it's easy to get lost within it. Also, "Upside-Down" is almost impossibly infectious, and "Satellite" sounds like it could be a Fakebook outtake (that's a compliment). However, too many of the other songs seem to blur into one another for me, and the end result doesn’t really connect when taken together as a whole.
Painful (Matador ’93) Rating: A
One of the best "dreampop" (or “shoegazer,” take your pick) albums ever and by far the band's best album yet, Painful made the indulgences of their previous album a distant memory. Featuring a fantastic mix of noisy feedback and dreamy guitar melodies, more and more Yo La Tengo are becoming a great groove-based band, as their swirling guitar romps rely ever more on a hypnotic repetition to achieve their entrancing results. In addition, the softly sung vocals recede further into the background, acting as another instrument more than anything else, while keyboards are integrated more prominently into their luscious sound, thereby further cementing the VU connection. The album alternates between dreamy mood pieces and intense rockers, but even the rockers are heavy on atmosphere. The songs rarely go faster than a mid-tempo pace, and they generally build slowly but surely, ebbing and flowing within the highly textured music to impressively build up the dramatic tension time and time again. Taking their cue from Neil Young, the two versions of "Big Day Coming" barely even qualify as distant relatives (the first one in particular is among the band’s best songs), while their cover of The Only Ones' "The Whole Of The Law" further reinforces their impeccable taste. Arguably even better are the power drill riffs that propel "From A Motel 6," the dreamy, softly sung lullaby "Nowhere Near," and the wonderfully moody "Double Dare," which sounds more like My Bloody Valentine than My Bloody Valentine! (ok not really but it’s a very close approximation). Saving the best for last, “I Heard You Looking” is a long instrumental that locks into an incredible groove that just builds and builds in intensity, making it their finest moment yet in an ever-expanding career. So, even though the album can seem a little slow moving at times, far more often than not it’s simply outstanding, as it showcases a band who had finally really found their niche.
Electro-pura (Matador/Atlantic ’95) Rating: A-
Although not as consistent as Painful, some amazing songs makes Electro-pura another must-have Yo La Tengo album. On the downside, there’s a few too many indulgent feedback forays a la May I Sing With Me, and the album, by far the band's longest to date, features a few songs too many, as would all subsequent full length releases. I could live without the showy, repetitive organ-led grooves of "False Ending" and "False Alarm," while "Attack On Love" has absolutely no reason to exist at all. Fortunately, that song is less than 2 minutes long, and there’s also some beautiful ballads (“The Hour Grows Late” and “Pablo And Andrea,” the latter of which also contains a soaring Kaplan guitar solo), and even a brilliantly catchy power pop track (“Tom Courtenay”) that should’ve made it onto radio playlists but of course didn’t. “(Straight Down To The) Bitter End” also hits on a great groove, and the 9+ minute “Blue Line Swinger" ends the album by, amazingly enough, actually upping the ante on “I Heard You Looking.” A sublime piece that builds and builds upon atmospheric organ, Hubley's wailing drum attack, and layers upon layers of guitar distortion, this song also features one of my all time favorite vocals; when Hubley’s gentle coo kicks in amid the surging melody it inevitably sends chills down my spine. Other lesser high points include "Decora," which gets the album off to a noisily seductive start, "Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)," an intense Sonic Youth-ish jam session, "Paul Is Dead," which is all about its playful backing vocals, and "The Ballad Of Red Buckets," whose moody, droning guitars most recall Painful. It all adds up quite nicely, with “Sister Ray” influenced organ again playing a major role in addition to Kaplan’s incendiary guitar exploits. As an added bonus, Hubley sings more than on any Yo La Tengo album yet, though sometimes her vocals are mixed a little too low, causing some songs to drift by pleasantly but uneventfully. Still, the band has a seemingly endless storage of gorgeous guitar melodies, and they've also added catchy “oohs” or “bop bop bop” vocal bits a la Stereolab. Long story short: with limited publicity and a major cult following, Yo La Tengo are simply one of the best bands in the world, and are as sure a thing as we have in music these days.
I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (Matador ’97) Rating: A
This could’ve been a nearly perfect album, but the more experimental second half meanders at times, particularly on “Green Arrow” and “Spec Bebop,” two overly long instrumentals. Still, there’s much to love here, as the album successfully shows off the band’s mellower side, often to hypnotic effect. Gorgeously textured songs such as “Moby Octopad” and “Damage” showcase their signature droning guitars in an ethereal manner, while surging melodies overflowing with distortion are also apparent on outstanding louder songs such as “Sugarcube” (great hilarious video too), “Deeper Into Movies” (very shoegazer-y), “We’re An American Band” (also quite dreamy and another great guitar track), and a fuzzy cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda.” Best of all, though the band sticks to their strengths, they also add new wrinkles throughout; for example, the sad beauty of “Shadows” features a trumpet, "One PM Again" contains a subtle country tint due to a pedal steel guitar, and the so-pretty-I-could-cry “Autumn Sweater” scored the band a minor indie hit with a lightly funky beat that owed more to hip-hop than Moe Tucker. These delectable songs are unlike anything else in the Yo La Tengo songbook and are all the better for it. The band’s playful side also manifests itself during slight but fun songs such as “Center Of Gravity” and “My Little Corner Of The World” (a cover of a song first recorded by Anita Bryant in 1960), while McKnew even takes a lead vocal on “Stockholm Syndrome,” a charmingly low-key sing along. Only its overly long length (68:38) prevents this album from being a masterpiece, but it’s still probably Yo La Tengo’s best album since it shows off so many sides of the band so well.
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador ’00) Rating: A-
Whereas the previous album showed the many things Yo La Tengo could do well, this album shows how well they can do one particular style. Aside from the out of place rocker "Cherry Chapstick," most of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is quiet and confessional, making it a fine album for going to sleep to. That statement was actually meant as a compliment, because the album settles into a relaxing groove that's rarely less than pleasant, and the band incorporates subtle background bits that keep me coming back for more. For the first time, it's Hubley and not Kaplan who is the standout performer instrumentally, as her inventive beats propel most of these songs, which take some time to get to know but which are well worth doing so. After all, it took guts to deliver an album on which Kaplan's guitar rarely rises above a whisper, but the band has earned the right to do whatever it wants, and their fans are willing to follow them anywhere. Those fans have been rewarded with by far the band's most personal statement to date, as for the first time the band's lyrics are as important as their music, if not more so. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is the anti-Blood On The Tracks in the way it pinpoints the highs and lows of a long term relationship (in this case, Kaplan and Hubley). Beginning at the beginning ("and I remember pretending I wasn't looking"), the album shows off the magic of love ("the song said 'let's be happy', and I was happy; it never made me happy before"), as well as its potential pitfalls ("what did I miss here, what can't you take anymore?"). The end result is a realistic and romantic album that focuses more on everyday struggles and small triumphs than on some idealized utopian vision of a perfect relationship. Just don't expect much in the way of excitement or variety (for example, "Night Falls On Hoboken" clocks in at 17:41 without ever changing gears once), spend some time getting to know it, forgive the album's overly long length (77:37), and you'll be rewarded with one of the best adult albums of the new millennium.
The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science (Egon '02) Rating: B
Available only through Yo La Tengo’s Web site, this album is definitely geared towards the hardcore Yo La Tengo fan. Recorded as a soundtrack album to be played alongside Jean Painleve’s undersea documentary series The Sounds Of Science, this almost-80 minute all-instrumental album does indeed have an aquatic aroma that’s quite enticing. Still, those looking for something more than background “mood music” will likely grow bored pretty quickly, despite the album’s often-soothing low-key grooves and cinematic qualities. The album contains a mere 8 songs, the shortest of which is 6:43, the longest 13:18, so patience is most definitely required for a full appreciation of these songs, which rarely end where they begin even if they sometimes don't do much of anything whilst morphing from one part to another. The opener, “Sea Urchins,” is a soothing, ambient highlight, but on “Hyas and Stenorhynchus” not much happens for over 9-minutes, so “soothing” soon becomes “boring.” The jazzy “Shrimp Stories” is better, as the band’s impressive keyboards/drums/bass interplay is on display, and “How Some Jellyfish Are Born” is another winner. Though its keyboard-heavy melody seems borrowed, I can’t quite place the original source, and besides, borrowed or not the dreamy and just a little bit funky song is quite beautiful. “Liquid Crystals” and “The Love Life Of The Octopus” then interrupt the album’s relaxed mood with their loud bursts of guitar, but the latter at least has a good percolating groove and some impressive playing from Kaplan, whose dreamy guitar swirl also highlights “Acera Or The Witches Dance.” Finally, “The Sea Horse” ends the album with 13 minutes of…not much really, though it drifts by pleasantly enough while it sticks around during its overly long duration. Anyway, I’m not sure why I got into so much song-by-song detail; after all, this is a mood album that’s meant to be listened to in its entirety. That said, on the whole the album is a bit too uninvolving and repetitive to really make me want to listen to it too often, though, when programmed around “Liquid Crystals” and “The Love Life Of The Octopus,” the subtle, soothing sounds of The Sounds The Sounds Of Science makes for a comforting companion.
Summer Sun (Matador ’03) Rating: B+
Although it continues the gentle, serene style of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Summer Sun is more light and upbeat, and well, summery than its perfect-for-late-at-night predecessor. The lyrics are less impressive this time out, but they’re also less important, as the band seems more interested in pursuing their increasingly sophisticated musical muse than in making any major lyrical statements.
Summer Sun is unlike any previous Yo La Tengo album, and though the same could probably be said about every previous Yo La Tengo album, this one stands out for several reasons. One, the album lacks a single loud guitar, and I personally miss the exciting guitar exploits of albums past. Secondly, the band has added increasing amounts of instrumentation (flutes, vibraphone, trumpet, sax, violin, cello), as well as studio-based “treatments” that make me think that perhaps the band has been listening to their share of Stereolab and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. Finally, Yo La Tengo explore their jazzy and funky sides more than on any other album.
That said, most of the album delivers pleasant mood music, often with the dreamy undertones that the band is best known for. “Beach Party Tonight” introduces the album with its trancey atmospherics, but the album begins in earnest on “Little Eyes,” a sweet little pop song that’s as good a choice as any for the album’s first single. The highlight here is Georgia Hubley’s breathy vocals, which would sound good simply singing the phone book. Thankfully, she does far more than that here, as well as on the gorgeous ballad “Today Is The Day” and their cover of Big Star’s “Take Care,” which closes out the album on a low-key high.
For his part, Kaplan sings “Season Of The Shark,” a delightfully light and pretty lullaby reminiscent of Belle and Sebastian. Most of the other songs he sings are less successful, however, and the album overall is more hit or miss than previous affairs and was seen by many as a disappointment as a result. For example, though the band has often been, and continues to be, experimental, rarely have they been so murky and abstract as on “Nothing But You And Me,” while “Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo” is a funky space rocker that misses the mark. Better is the head bobbing bossa nova of “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float” which tinkles pleasantly along, and the soothing “Don’t Have To Be So Sad.”
Other notable songs include “Moonrock Mambo,” on which Kaplan actually raps a la Soul Coughing while Hubley harmonizes dreamily, and “Tiny Birds,” on which bassist James McNew is given a rare vocal spotlight. Alas, the fact that the song is obviously a low-key rewrite of the melody from “Deeper Into Movies” shows that Yo La Tengo were less inspired than usual this time out, and even the album’s obligatory 10+ minute epic “Let’s Be Still” is more pleasantly enjoyable than revelatory. Actually, the same could be said about this album as a whole, but perhaps more than anything Yo La Tengo are a victim of their own consistently excellent past, for Summer Sun is an often-gorgeous album that is rarely less than pleasant. Note: A revised “Today Is The Day” was released on the EP of the same name, where it was turned into an anthemic rocker.
I am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador ’06) Rating: A-
With an attention grabbing album title (inspired by former New York Knick Kurt Thomas) and attention grabbing music to match, Yo La Tengo are still going strong 20+ years after their inception. Whereas their previous three albums were quiet "mood" albums, this one harks back to the stylistic grab bag that was I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Not everything works, certainly not as well as that album, and like all their recent albums this one is too long at 77 minutes, but many of these songs are exceptional, even if the album consolidates their longstanding strengths rather than offering anything new. The album is bookended by two 10+ guitar epics, and it's good to hear Ira plug in and let loose again. "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" is boosted by McNew's thudding bass groove and Georgia's powerful drum wallop, but of course its capped off by Kaplan's fuzzy guitar heroics, and though perhaps "The Story Of Yo La Tango" isn't quite as stellar, it too is a really good grower track, even though both could certainly be called over-long. The other epic track, the pretty if not particularly involving instrumental "Daphnia," comes in the middle of the album and almost serves as an intermission, though like previous ambient efforts on The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science this one definitely overstays its welcome. Elsewhere, "Beanbag Chair" delivers light piano pop with a dollop of horns, "I Feel Like Going Home" and "Song For Mahila" are slow, sleepy ballads, the former sung by Georgia, the latter by Ira, "Mr. Tough" is a fun Prince pastiche, "Black Flowers" is a lovely orchestral pop song gently sung by McNew, "The Race Is On Again" features an enticing low-key groove and those breathy Georgia vocals I love so much, "I Should Have Known Better" has bright organ and a good fast-paced groove, and "The Weakest Part" provides more pretty Georgia-sung piano pop. Sounds pretty good, huh? Damn right it is, even if its sprawling scope perhaps sacrifices some of the cohesiveness of the band's recent records; then again, their last three albums (including The Sounds...) were probably too cohesive (i.e. too one-dimensional). Again, I could live without some of the other songs, such as the experimental electronica of "The Room Got Heavy" and the rockabilly-influenced "Watch Out For Me Ronnie," and the juxtapositions between songs as different as "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" and "Beanbag Chair" can be a bit jarring; I also wish the band would at least think about the "less is more" concept rather than unnecessarily filling all of their albums to the absolute maximum. Still, these are basically nitpicks, as the exceedingly eclectic I am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass is yet another excellent Yo La Tengo album.