I have it.

Yo La Tengo is an extremely long-running band in the annals of American indie rock history. I first became aware of them at a relatively young age; I was 13 and their new album was their third, "President Yo La Tengo". The only song I heard from it, which I heard on the local university station, was "Alyda", a mellow, pastoral, almost countryish tune. I figured Yo La Tengo was another band like Antietam or Green On Red--decent tunes, but too mellow a delivery to really make them worth investigating. Therefore, I didn't hear them again for several years--not until they released "May I Sing With Me" in 1992 and songs from it got airplay on that same radio station. "Upside Down", the first song I heard from that album, was in the same vein as "Alyda", though I liked it better--it was catchier. But then, not too long after hearing and liking "Upside Down", I heard an insane 10-minute guitar noise freakout on the same station, and loved it. Imagine my surprise to hear the DJ announce that it had also been by Yo La Tengo--that it was, in fact, the track that followed "Upside Down" on "May I Sing With Me", "Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss". Maybe Yo La Tengo didn't merit such casual dismissal after all.

After "Mushroom Cloud Of Hiss" opened my mind, I paid a bit more attention to Yo La Tengo. I picked up a used copy of "New Wave Hot Dogs", which had a decent amount of noise jams on it, though some of it was just as mellow as "Upside Down". I was more into "Painful", the album with which they followed "May I Sing With Me". There were still some quiet songs, notably the album-opening version of "Big Day Coming", but more emphasis was put on the noisy rockers, such as "From A Motel 6", the lengthy instrumental closer "I Heard You Looking", and the rerecording of "Big Day Coming" as a faster, noisier song. When Yo La Tengo did songs like this, I liked them a lot. In fact, at least on "Painful", there were enough of them and they were good enough that they allowed me to focus on them and de-emphasize quieter tracks like "Nowhere Near", which didn't do any more for me than Yo La Tengo's quiet songs usually did.

Over the next decade or so, I heard various Yo La Tengo songs, and liked some of them quite a bit, but nothing I heard ever made me feel like I should be checking out every new album they released. A friend would put a song like "Tom Courtenay" on a mix tape, and I'd like it, but just not quite enough to get the album. And then I'd hear another song a few years later, like "Our Way To Fall", and it would make me think I was right to keep Yo La Tengo at arm's length. For the most part, I thought of myself as liking Yo La Tengo, but the truth was that I didn't follow their career, or even listen to them very often.

I probably wouldn't have ever checked out their most recent album, "I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass", if I hadn't read a review that made opening track "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" sound absolutely amazing. The song was available as a free mp3 from Yo La Tengo's website (or maybe their label's website... I'm not really sure anymore, it's been a couple years since this happened), and when I downloaded it, I discovered that it was everything the review had led me to expect. It begins with Georgia Hubley playing a simple beat by herself, over which bassist James McNew soon begins playing a simple, repeating bassline. After a couple of measures of this, guitarist Ira Kaplan comes in on guitar, and proceeds to lay down a noise-laced but melodic solo that continues for several minutes. At points, Kaplan quits soloing long enough to sing a verse, but the song isn't really about the words, or anything relating to conventional verse-chorus-verse structure. It is an instrumental epic, and its epic qualities arise entirely from its pulsing repetition. Despite the presence of vocal verses that alternate with the extended solos, the song doesn't have any real changes--McNew plays the same bassline throughout the song, without even the slightest change. This seems like it would get monotonous and annoying, but it's just the opposite; it draws the listener in, pulling you along with its inexorable forward motion and making you wish it would go on forever. Its 11 minute length is not inconsiderable, but it still feels like it could go on for at least twice as long without getting old.

Hearing this song was enough to make me want to check out the entire album. I was aware of Yo La Tengo's multi-faceted writing style, and could certainly have predicted that the rest of the album would be very different from "Pass The Hatchet" if I'd thought about it for a minute, but instead of giving it any real consideration, I just downloaded "I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass" as quickly as possible. I wanted to find out if there was more where that came from.

At first, it seemed like the answer was no. The song that followed "Pass The Hatchet" was "Beanbag Chair", a jaunty, piano-and-brass driven tune that sounded like a "Sgt. Pepper" outtake and was about the worst choice possible with which to follow "Pass The Hatchet". Maybe Yo La Tengo just wanted to shake up their listeners, keep them on their toes, but my reaction was one of disgust. In fact, I was so repelled by "Beanbag Chair" that it took me quite a while to investigate the rest of the album.

When I did, I found that the abrupt stylistic shifts continued throughout the album. Track three, "I Feel Like Going Home", featured Georgia Hubley on vocals for a quiet tune that reminded me of R.E.M.'s "Nightswimming" crossed with a Tattle Tale song. "Daphnia" was a long, percussionless instrumental, consisting of echoing guitar lines over quiet piano. "The Race Is On Again" was another of the many mellow, pastoral Yo La Tengo tunes I've heard over the years, and "Mr. Tough" was another jaunty piece of annoyingly catchy baroque-pop. Some of these songs were awful, some were tolerable, and some were even halfway decent. But I didn't come upon another song on the album that I really liked until I reached the very end.

"The Story Of Yo La Tango" (yes, it's supposed to be a misspelling) is another long, epic track. In fact, it's a full minute longer than "Pass The Hatchet". And if the driving force behind "Pass The Hatchet"'s epic hypnosis is pulsing rhythmic repetition, then the driving force behind "The Story Of Yo La Tango" is something quite different. In its opening moments, the song consists of little more than an ambient hum. This humming seems to be several different tracks of guitar, each doing something slightly different--one merely droning on a single chord, another warbling in a manner that sounds created more by an effect pedal than active playing, a third, buried in the mix, moving between two different chords, seemingly without the strings being strummed at all. After a few seconds, yet another guitar joins the mix, adding swelling chords that will come to dictate the song's chord structure throughout its length. At around two and a half minutes in, an actively strummed guitar moves to the front of the mix, playing those same chords over the beginnings of a steady, pounding drumbeat. A bassline, switching between the song's basic chords and high, harmonized notes, joins the drumbeat. Finally, after nearly four minutes, Ira Kaplan begins singing. He sings in a high, clear tone, which resonates with the higher notes of the bassline, and his lyrics are both mournful and yearning, as if simultaneously admitting that a goal has not been achieved and still feeling as if it might not be too late.

These lyrics take on extra poignance in light of the song's title--"The Story Of Yo La Tango", a song that purports to be autobiography even as it misspells the band's name. That misspelling in and of itself carries its own painful resonance; a band that has been releasing records for over 20 years still has to face the fact that the vast majority of the world doesn't know their name well enough not to get the spelling wrong. The song as a whole feels like a document of the band's struggle not to lose hope, and of the increasing emotional effort it takes with every year not to do just that. "We stared at the sun too long," Ira Kaplan sings at the beginning of the song, while towards the end, he sings, "We lied to ourselves for awhile, in our usual style. Now I wish we could lie to ourselves again." The music never changes enough to contain an actual chorus, but lyrically, Kaplan returns over and over to these lines: "And we tried, we tried with all our might. We tore the playhouse down. We ran headlong in our way... We tried so hard." The title makes it clear that these lyrics apply to something very personal in the lives of Yo La Tengo's members, but they are also vague enough to have a much more universal meaning. The song could just as easily be about the love between two partners in a long-term relationship. As many of us know, the longer one attempts to sustain a relationship, the harder it can be to keep from falling apart. Relationships take work, and sometimes the feelings that originally drew two people together can get so overshadowed that it's impossible to stay in touch with them. This song is about a struggle to stay in touch with those feelings--and granted, Kaplan and co. may be thinking of the feelings that lead people to join together in a band, but said feelings really aren't that different from the ones that lead people into a relationship. This is probably even truer in this case, considering that Ira Kaplan and drumer Georgia Hubley are married.

The poignant, yearning feel of "The Story Of Yo La Tango" isn't solely due to the lyrics, though. The music is crucial to the song, underscoring the yearning desire and the hope in the face of despair that the lyrics communicate. As the song progresses, the army of guitars that came together to create a mostly ambient, humming beginning build up from that beginning in glorious fashion. At first, during the opening verse, this buildup takes the form of these guitars playing the chords that make up the main riff of the song. But as the song continues, some of the guitars that are further down in the mix begin to get adventurous, moving from the basic riff into more elaborate soloing and even noise feedback jamming. As the song continues, all of the guitars grow louder and louder, especially at about 6:30 into the song, when Kaplan stops singing and the loudest guitar in the mix switches from rhythm guitar to playing a solo. This seemingly gives license to the other guitar tracks (presumably all played by Kaplan), which grow louder and more intense during the solo. Even when Kaplan begins singing again, this guitar army keeps growing in volume and intensity, eventually losing the main riff of the song entirely to follow the high harmonic notes of the bassline into a consistently rising tone. By this point in the song, Georgia Hubley's drumming has become nearly frantic, egging the guitars on with its own intensity. The ultimate crescendo is finally reached at about nine and a half minutes in, as Kaplan finishes singing his last verse. "We tried so hard," he sings, and the entire band seems to draw up short, riding on the final chord of the main riff for several measures in what is the closest this song has to an actual change. Finally, at a point in the song where it seems like they have nothing else left to do except bring things down into some sort of an ending, they plunge back into the song's main riff one more time, with even more ferocity than before. The guitar army, seemingly playing as loud as it can, gets even louder, and the feedback grows even more atonal. Coming on the heels of their lingering on one chord for several measures, this part of the song sounds like a rocket taking off. And sure enough, it begins to fade out shortly after.

I'm really not surprised they chose to end it this way. The only other way I could see approaching the end of the song is to just keep jamming out on it until the entire band collapses in exhaustion--and I can imagine that, in the studio as well as during any live performances of this song, that's exactly how it ends. However, it's really impossible to capture that sort of ending on an album, especially when "I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass" is nearly 76 minutes long as it is. This might be why I find all of the tracks on this album other than its opener and closer to be so intolerable most of the time--not only do they not live up to the two highlights, there are way too many of them besides. If this album were only 45 minutes or so, and the most annoying 6 or 7 songs were cut from it entirely, I'm sure it would be much easier for me to enjoy it as an album. As it is now, though, I generally listen to it as if it were 23 minutes long and contained only two songs. Those two songs are so great, all any of the songs that lie inbetween them can do is dull their impact.

Yo La Tengo - Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind
Yo La Tengo - The Story Of Yo La Tango



Post a Comment

<< Home