Same as it never was

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The existence of Yo La Tengo owes itself to a lot of things, from the sayings of Spanish baseball players (Yo La Tengo means"I’ve got it!") to the conditions – boredom, cultural monotony, DIY – that made independent rock in America both necessary and possible during the Reagan administration. Those times – coupled with drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan’s Bohemian parents, a college education and watching bands set up and tear down at CBGB’s and Max’s Kansas City in the early ‘80s – have helped produce Yo La Tengo, easily one of the finest working musical partnerships in contemporary American music.

But Kaplan, a former rock critic himself, doesn’t want to contemplate connections between world-historical forces and three middle-aged music geeks living and working in Hoboken, New Jersey. In fact, after the 10th long pause followed by the phrases, "I’m just not sure about that" and "I have no idea," I get the feeling that Kaplan isn’t lying when he says of his rock critic days, "I wasn’t really much of a critic, and certainly to the extent that I was a critic, the overview think piece wasn’t really my specialty."


Which isn’t to say that Kaplan et al. (Hubley and nearly decade-long Yo La member James McNew on bass) aren’t thinking deeply about their music. On the contrary – their new record, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-out, their 11th full-length since forming in 1984, is marked by a conscious effort to spark change.

The change is realized in the slightly shifting sonic palette offered on
ATNTIIO, provided by post-avant jazz percussionist Susie Ibarra – who is featured on "Everyday" and "Saturday"; a light serving of cellos on "From Black to Blue" and "You Can Have It All"; and the unobtrusive use of a drum machine on the well-executed dublike instrumental "Tired Hippo."

Another break with Yo La tradition – one that has seen volume and noise high-water marks exceeded from time to time – is an extremely quiet production touch that, despite one riffing rocker ("Cherry Chapstick") and a 17-minute outro ("Night Falls on Hoboken"), rarely graduates beyond a murmur. The final song also has its own original features, including an incredibly delicate and gorgeous brush percussion section and an understated guitar breakdown that never overtakes the whole structure. The days of predominantly guitar-engulfed albums such as Electr-o-pura (1995) and the influence of My Bloody Valentine, a band Yo La toured with in 1991, have obviously been reappraised.

Yo La Tengo’s interest in jazz – particularly such avant folks as Ibarra, Roy Campbell Jr. and Daniel Carter from the Other Dimensions in Music recording project – seems to parallel that of Superchunk’s Mac McCaughan, a friend and fellow indie-provocateur whose own Wobbly Rail Records has begun to investigate the connections between punk and improvisation. The effect on Superchunk and Yo La Tengo can be found in perhaps the most expertly beautiful records of their respective careers, with Superchunk’s Jim O’Rourke-produced Come Pick Me Up released just last summer and ATNTIIO released only a week ago. On both albums, the band’s work seems absolutely focused and natural, with a newfound emphasis on lyrics – you can hear them clearly on both releases! – and an increased experimentation with new sounds and ideas.

Though still not a jazz outfit, the band’s power to set a sonic stage and then surprise and delight has gotten an extended lease on life with, as Kaplan describes it, a "widening circle of collaborators." The current Yo La Tengo tour itself is structured accordingly. The Detroit date will find the Majestic Theater filled with chairs and the aforementioned McCaughan and New Zealand pop-experimenter David Kilgour (of the Clean, among other notable projects) joining the band. The new musical compatriots and the nontraditional (at least in indie rock) seating arrangement are, according to Kaplan, a product of the band’s initial pessimism in the core trio’s ability to execute the record live. Now, Kaplan intimates that it’ll just be good to have a few new faces on stage "whose role in the performance is different. You treat things differently and change is a good thing, a lot of the times."

But Kaplan warns that the band
doesn’t do much wondering about change, how it occurs or why it occurs, arguing simply "that the times change – it’s how you react to those changes."

A close listen to ATNTIIO proves Kaplan’s point: Things have changed, with the band knitting its pop senses to a new sonic fabric. But those pop beliefs – exemplified by personal lyrics, incredible hooks and lyrical "bomp-ba-bomp-baa-baa-ba" sing-song wonders – are still their own, a product of living and working together while channeling their own isolation and insularity into the sounds coming from the practice room.

Meanwhile, Kaplan, Hubley and McNew’s music invokes yet another baseball reference geared to help teams make it through the long haul of another season – take it one day at a time.

Carleton S. Gholz writes about music for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]

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