Yo La Tengo
San Francisco, Ca
The real question–the digging, burning query that’s dogged us their whole career–is what exactly do they have? With every album, it’s the same bold slogan; never explained, only brandished: “I’ve got it.” Sure, they obscure the arrogance in foreign tongue, but it hits the same–their cool insistence on the possession of some greater, external force. Of course, it’s very possible that I’m over thinking it. Maybe it’s nothing at all; a silly non sequitur that Ira Kaplan dreamed up to plague me and other like-minded analysts, attempting to decipher his work; an editorial shield plotted during his early authorial days.
Despite the seeming contradiction with reason and reality, it’s not hard to imagine that Yo La Tengo perform in concert with a higher power. Defying the always reliable odds of age, sustainability, and growth, they have achieved what perhaps no other band has: over 27 years worth of consistent, solid work. Almost every artist with a career arc this long has slumps and lulls–long periods without necessary or innovative albums. Neil, Dylan, Bruce, the Stones; all of the big ones have phases that we’d be happy to forget. Not Yo La Tengo.
The major separation seems to be stability. When you take a case study of similar acts, like The Velvet Underground or Pavement, they were destined to implode from the start; their delicate chemistries resting on explosive personal relationships and clashing geniuses at work. Compared with the quaint, domestic tranquility shared by Kaplan; wife, Georgia Hubley; and James McNew, the Velvets were a well tuned trainwreck and Pavement wasn’t much better. Sonic Youth seemed to coexist in the same rarified air, but the recent split between Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore suggests otherwise.
While McNew isn’t technically a member of the marriage, the casual contentment and deeply woven chemistry shared by all three suggests, at least, a domestic partnership. Whatever they have, it’s tuned to improvisational magic onstage; a reliable back and forth between old hands well accustomed to the others’ movements. Channeling swirling intros from long loved gems–churning fan favorite “Autumn Sweater” inside out–they don’t fear charting new course, for they know they will always be followed, close behind, by their closest compatriots.
Their latest record, Fade, is a reflection of the road they’ve taken and the wisdom (or lack thereof) that they’ve found. Opener, “Ohm” is a shoutalong declaration of intent, a shaggy meditation on life’s dynamic nature and our inability to fully understand it; our only choice is to embrace each moment we are in, for it is all we know. During the first set of their Fillmore show–an understated and heavily acoustic series–they brought out “Ohm,” along with most of the album, delivering the same gentle, proficient sincerity heard on record. While the material skewed towards soothing melodies, most of the audience stood in rapt attention, nodding along to the string-based rhythm section, instead of the customary percussion.
The highlight, both live and recorded, is Kaplan’s fingerpicking ode to quiet, lasting commitment, “I’ll Be Around.” Over his looping acoustic guitar and Georgia’s washed out organ, Ira doesn’t promise to always love, or to always be good; he states, simply and subtly, that he will always be there. It’s a sweet, small sentiment, an earnest ballad that never comes close to schmaltz–the kind of song that could be risky in front of a mass of greedy concertgoers. Fortunately for our heroes, my fellow observers recognized the beauty underway and behaved accordingly. The band capped off the set with an acoustic reworking of their classic, “Tom Courtenay,” featuring Georgia on lead vocals–a bouncing, immensely hummable take on one of their catchiest singles. Like a well placed sherbet, it was the perfect palate cleanser between courses.
In direct contrast to my previously held notions of collective civility, some unwashed heathen spat nonsense behind me at the bar, during intermission, insisting “That soft shit doesn’t work here, not in this venue.” Resisting every urge to strike him with fist or good taste, I quietly gathered my libation and teethed out any lingering aggression on the walk back to my company. Making the smallest of talk while the crew shuffled stage arrangements, I took down the brew with greedy nerves, calming my expectation; my thirst for more audio ascension. When the band returned, they plugged in, ready to rip us right out of our glazed complacency.
And now, if you’ll indulge me, a peek behind the curtain to reveal my failings as a respectable journalist. Determined prior to take exhaustive notes on my iPhone throughout the show, my reasonable ambitions were thwarted by an undeniable stew of beer, bud, and the otherworldly broadcast that took hold somewhere in the second set. Instead of in-depth research, I managed a few song titles and two coherent phrases: “VU incarnate” and “Masters of melody and discord.” If you’ve stayed with me this long, you’ll forgive the lapse in cold, hard facts. From here on out, we make do with half-hazed recollections and general musings.
The prevailing notion, the nugget rattling my head all show, was that this performance was the closest that I’d come to seeing my all time favorite band, The Velvet Underground, play live. Yes, the comparison has been made a million times and it doesn’t take a finely tuned ear to correlate Georgia’s distant alto with Nico, or Ira’s laconic delivery with Lou Reed. The most striking similarity is their interplay of dissonance and harmony, the strain of psychedelia countered by interludes of soft sincerity. Both bands bring the house down with barn burning freakouts, but they’ll boost you right back with a soul settling lullaby.
In general, the most rewarding and impacting art is found at the union of consonance and dissonance. There needs to be enough of a pop hook to reward the ear, drawing in the casual listener; yet, the real trick is in the challenging follow-up, the takeoff into parts unknown and visions unexplored. It’s an extremely difficult balance to maintain; veer too much to either side and you can wind up with heavy handed plays to the mainstream, like the Doug Yule led disaster Squeeze; or, even worse, experiments in audience masochism, a la Reed and Metallica’s Lulu.
The sweetest spot lies somewhere around the Velvets’ brilliant debut and Yo La Tengo’s masterpiece I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Both albums feature complex sonic stews with rich recipes of grinding, earthy jams and transporting hymns, delivered with a airy breathlessness devoid of contrivance or pretension. The expressions inside are pure and simple, honest representations of the minds and hearts behind the songs, yet with a wink that fully embraces pop mechanizations and skewers them from the inside. Acknowledgements of the past and predictions of the future, these records transcend their individual circumstances and exist as eternal, significant art.
Enough faux-academic pomp and circumstance? Yeah, me too. Let’s get to the shock and awe.
Where the first set was all light touches and acoustic singalongs, the second featured the trio at their heaviest and most head spinning. I love the minimal numbers as much as the next guy–certainly, more than the jackass from the bar–but nothing gets me rolling more than a straight up rocker. Culling the finest nuggets from their deep catalog, every song choice and arrangement was on point. Playful in their interpretations, they reinvented their set for the live experience, but never so far as to obscure the original, resonating intent. Their loudest, jammiest tracks–the extended solos of equal parts brash garage stomp and droning Krautrock–drowned out every surrounding stimulus, even the band itself. Fused to the music, abducted to ascension, the carefully crafted and thoughtfully measured mindfuck unfolding onstage consumed every spare sense and thought–it swallowed me whole.
I peaked somewhere in the thick of “Blue Line Swinger,” the shoegaze scorched last track from Electr-O-Pura. Between Ira’s ever winding electric rattle, James’s building bass line, and Georgia’s thundering fills, the song ramped up to a full sonic sweep of the senses, an obliterating aural fog. The best moments in live music–hell, the best moments in life–happen when a stimulus, a sentiment, a sensation is so affecting that you lose thought altogether, existing solely and purely for that experience. When Georgia comes cooing in midway through, guiding her husband into a steady riff and, subsequent, devastating solo, I found that magical nothingness in the heart of their song, in their powerful pulse. While “Blue Line Swinger” was, for me, the most impacting of the set, there were plenty of peaks throughout, all the way to the finish.
Unable to tear our heads open and simply walk away, out of moral compulsion, Yo La Tengo came back for one last lullaby, the Georgia led “Cornelia and Jane” from Fade. Quiet but complex–a subtle build from a simple melody, borrowing genre convention (twangy alt country rumbles) and leaving the audience in melodic catharsis–the song is a microcosm for their collective and consistent greatness.
What do they have? Just about everything, the smug bastards.
[photos by Phil Dokas (shot on 5.10.13) used under creative commons license]