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Yo La Tengo could be the greatest band you’ve never heard

The indie-rock stalwarts have earned both, their critics' praise and their peers' respect

Yo La Tengo at O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2015 in London. Photo: Getty Images
Yo La Tengo at O2 Shepherd’s Bush Empire in 2015 in London. Photo: Getty Images

The Hoboken, New Jersey-based indie rock trio, Yo La Tengo (YLT), is so storied that it is puzzling that a wider audience does not know its music. Thirty-four years since they were formed, YLT have released 15 albums, including There’s A Riot Going On, which came out last Friday; acted in the 1996 film, I Shot Andy Warhol, where they portrayed their iconic inspirers, The Velvet Underground; made a video of a song, Sugarcube, in which actors Bob Odenkirk (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul) and David Cross (Arrested Development), played key roles; and have consistently been the darlings of music critics and a towering influence for legions of bands. Yet Yo La Tengo remain, for swathes of rock-music lovers, largely below the radar and undiscovered.

A clue to why YLT remain the greatest band you may not have discovered could lie in that video of Sugarcube, made in 1997 before Odenkirk or Cross and their blockbuster TV series became famous. The satirical video launched with the release of the band’s album, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, features a record label executive who is dismayed by the trio’s studied low-key performance of the song and sends them to be tutored by two hair metal rockers (yes, Odenkirk and Cross) who put them through the paces—how to smash guitars and trash hotel rooms, and go wild on stage. The band then re-records the song, performing it in exactly the same low-key manner that they had done originally, and the video ends with the same executive, this time congratulating them.

That video sums up the personality, spirit and attitude of YLT. The trio—the two founders, married couple Ira Kaplan, 61, and Georgia Hubley, 58, and early joinee, bassist James McNew—have remained fiercely independent, shunned rock music’s attendant paraphernalia of excesses, and channelled most of their energy into constant creative ambition.

It could be tempting to buttonhole YLT’s music and self-effacing style as lo-fi and shoegaze-y (mumbled vocals, distorted guitars, and lots of feedback), but that would be inaccurate. In the nearly four decades that the band has endured, they have always experimented with different genres. When they started, Kaplan and Hubley played roots or contemporary folk music. Soon, they added a noisier, louder, feedback-driven dimension to the folksy idiom. It didn’t stop there. YLT’s music can be softly acoustic; it can be rave-ready psychedelic; or even jazz-like improvisational. It can be anything.

The thing about YLT’s discography is that you can start listening to them from any album. Cover versions of other people’s songs are a perennial in YLT’s recordings and many of the band’s faithful fans love Fakebook (1990), a set of largely cover versions of songs by some familiar musicians such as Cat Stevens (Here Comes My Baby), The Kinks (Oklahoma, U.S.A.), and John Cale (Andalucia), but also obscure ones by bands such as The Escorts, Flamin’ Groovies, and Rex Garvin and The Mighty Cravers. Cover albums have punctuated YLT’s discography with regularity. A couple, such as 2006’s Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics, and 2016’s Murder In The Second Degree, were products of YLT’s annual visits to the studio of WFMU, a radio station in New Jersey, where they take listener requests to play covers of songs as part of a fund-raising programme by the station.

But there is also the treasured catalogue of their original albums. Like I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, a milestone in their career that showcases the ease with which they can traverse different styles: morphing from folk to rock to electronica. While all the original compositions on it are excellent, there’s a Beach Boys’ song, Little Honda ’64, as well and on that Kaplan’s laid-back, whispery vocals and fuzzy guitar, Hubley’s drums and McNew’s bass lines best define YLT’s sound. If you’re new to their music, start with I Can Hear The Heart and then move either backwards or forwards in their discography. It doesn’t matter where you take a bite of YLT’s music; it’s always a gloriously understated mix of the delicate and the noisy.

Over the years, the band has remained uncompromisingly independent and innovative, earning the respect of not only young, lo-fi debutante bands but also their peers. Listen to 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, a complex romantic reflection likely alluding to the relationship between Kaplan and Hubley, replete with literary references (Thomas Pynchon’s novella, Crying Of Lot 49) as well as to pop culture and indie films. Play 2009’s Popular Songs and find hints of funk and R&B and soul peeping out of a dozen well-crafted original compositions. Or, groove to the cinematic, dreamy Fade (2013) and marvel at the fact that this is a band that keeps the endangered flag of guitar rock flying.

At the time of writing, I had heard five pre-released tracks of the new album, and they didn’t disappoint. The soundscape is dreamlike; and the synths and guitars blend perfectly. The title, There’s A Riot Going On, is borrowed from Sly and the Family Stone’s famous album of the same name from 1971. That’s probably why you can’t miss the hat-tip to those masters of funk, soul and psychedelia of the 1960s in one of the pre-released tracks, the funky Out Of The Pool. I Know What My Playlist Will Be This Weekend—wait, that does have the ring of a YLT album title, doesn’t it?

The Lounge List

Five tracks to bookend this week

1. ‘Sugarcube’ (music video) by Yo La Tengo from YouTube

2. ‘Ohm’ by Yo La Tengo from ‘Fade’

3. ‘Little Honda’ by Yo La Tengo from ‘I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One’

4. ‘Barnaby, Hardly Working’ by Yo La Tengo from ‘Fakebook’

5. ‘Out Of The Pool’ by Yo La Tengo from ‘There’s A Riot Going On’

First Beat is a column on what’s new and groovy in the world of music.

He tweets at @sanjoynarayan

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