When Yo La Tengo (YLT), the American indie band from Hoboken, a small city on the banks of the Hudson in New Jersey, US, release a studio album, there is always a ripple among their loyal—or, should I say, diehard—fans across the world. But although their loyalty is unstinting, their numbers are not huge. When this column first wrote about YLT almost exactly five years ago, the headline was: “Yo La Tengo Could Be The Greatest Band You’ve Never Heard”.
Things haven’t changed since. YLT are still acknowledged by rock critics everywhere as an influential force and continue to command the respect of peers but if the usual yardsticks for ranking popularity are deployed, they don’t really measure up: Their record sales aren’t huge and massive arenas don’t sell out when they play gigs. Yet, for the connoisseurs, YLT are a precious trio who have in their long career been prolific, uniquely eclectic, and whose music is instantly recognisable.
So when, in early February, YLT released their 17th full-length album, This Stupid World, fans were delighted. Before the album came out, a couple of singles from it had already teased fans and anticipation was running high. YLT didn’t disappoint. Like many of their albums since the debut, Ride The Tiger, in 1986, This Stupid World has all the band’s typical musical characteristics: There is a wide range of different tonalities and treatment; the lyrics are mindful and thought-provoking; and above all, it is frustratingly difficult for those who would like to slot the band under some sort of generic label.
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The nine songs on This Stupid World clock in at under 50 minutes but there are three long ones that run for more than seven minutes each. Such as the title track, This Stupid World, which starts with fuzzy, noisy, punk-style guitar feedback before singer and co-founder Ira Kaplan’s soft, whispering vocal style unfolds the lyrics: Staring right in front of me/ Smoke shows in the mist/ Cry from laughter, cry from pain/ We see what you think we see/ Just as you don’t, but do/ Repeat as needed, repeat again. This is followed by the refrain: This stupid world/ It’s killing me/ This stupid world/ Is all we have.
YLT was founded by Kaplan, who sings and plays the guitar, and his wife, Georgia Hubley, who plays the drums, in 1984. The two have been together and in the band since then. After a series of other members came and went, they got bassist James McNew, who has been in the band since 1992. It’s a close-knit group. Kaplan is now 66, Hubley, 63 and McNew, 53. The trio is the antithesis of the image that comes to mind when you think of a rock band.
If you watch interviews with Kaplan and Hubley, they come across as a quintessential suburban middle-aged couple with zero rock-star affectation. Ditto for McNew, whose demeanour belies his talent as a killer bassist, composer and mixer.
For This Stupid World, the trio departed from their usual practice of engaging outside producers and expertise for mixing and decided to record and finish the album on their own, with McNew playing the lead role in the final mixing. The result is an album that draws in listeners, hooking them to the multilayered textures, riffs and noisy interludes it is easy to get lost in.
There is always much to enjoy in YLT’s albums and the new one is no different. In fact, it brings to mind some of the band’s best releases, such as 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, which is considered by many as one of their best. YLT have always been an experimental band, veering from a soft and quiet understated sound to loud, raw and noisy. At their live shows, it is not uncommon to find them playing a tender, almost acoustic set that is followed by another robust, electric and loud one. In This Stupid World, you can get the entire spectrum of the sound that makes the band unique.
Those keen to sample YLT’s music can start anywhere. Pick up I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and listen to the delectable love song Sugarcube; or go to 1990’s Fakebook, an album almost entirely of covers, and listen to their version of Here Comes My Baby, written by Cat Stevens; or go to 2015’s Stuff Like That There and check out their version of the Cure classic, Friday I’m In Love. Covers are a big part of YLT’s repertoire and their knowledge of other people’s songs is almost encyclopaedic. At some gigs, they have been known to use a giant spinning wheel with different playlists for members of the audience to spin for the band to play. They could be lists like “songs that start with S” or entirely made up of covers, or even, once, a cue not to sing but to enact a scene from a TV show such as Seinfeld.
In interviews, the trio has said they don’t really think of making it to the charts or “success” in conventional terms. Instead, it is the love for playing music that drives them. That is also perhaps why the band is a quietly throbbing cult rather than a searingly hot act on the rock scene. I once played their 2006 album, I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, for a companion. The album opens with the song Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind. The 10-minute-plus song is a guitar-rock lover’s delight, with Kaplan going pretty wild on his strings and with opening lyrics that can seem bewildering (Unplug the microphone/ The ticker tape scream/ They’re all desensitised/ Grown so backwards…). Well, let’s just say that my companion wasn’t impressed. “Are they supposed to sound like that?” she asked.
Yes, YLT are supposed to sound the way they do. Named after a baseball cry in Spanish that means “I got it!”, they have been influenced by the music of a panoply of rock acts—Velvet Underground, The Kinks, Television, Sonic Youth, even Bob Dylan—yet Kaplan, Hubley and McNew have evolved a soundscape entirely their own. And as their 39th year of existence shows, it has been most durable.
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