Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: Yo La Tengo.
Yo La Tengo 101
Yo La Tengo played its first official show on December 2, 1984. The group was opening for another newly formed band, Antietam, in the back room of the now-legendary Maxwell’s in Hoboken, New Jersey. It was the same venue where Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan had first met four years earlier, and it’s where they would hold their wedding reception a few years later. The mutual shyness that had brought them so close together was rattling the couple’s nerves. They got through it, though, and each show became less terrifying than the last. Thirty years and 14 bass players later, Yo La Tengo has secured its spot in the indie lexicon and on many “band influences” lists. The trio has never explicitly sought out fame, but has rather found itself comfortable with quiet success and turning art into a career. Hubley, Kaplan, and James McNew have never been content to sit still; diving deeper into their catalog yields increasing reward.
With 13 studio albums and a slew of compilations, covers, and EPs, it’s best to dive right into the middle of Yo La Tengo’s discography and work outward in either direction. 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is a long-standing favorite among many fans. It’s an experimental turn that hinted at the band’s awareness of the burgeoning electronic scene, but it still contains the Yo La Tengo staples. All of these factors came together to nudge the trio out of the underground scene and into a soft spotlight. Released one week before the album came out, “Autumn Sweater” was a perfect teaser for what Yo La Tengo had in store, and it has fittingly become one of the band’s most popular songs.
The album also gave McNew his first shot at lead vocals on “Stockholm Syndrome”—a role he would play more frequently going forward. Though he joined the band in 1992 and was very much a part of the excellent Painful and Electr-O-Pura, the bassist shines brightly on I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One.
Yo La Tengo never cared much for music videos, but I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’s fun and poppy “Sugarcube” allowed the band to show off its goofier side. The clip features the trio attending a rock ’n’ roll academy headed by Bob Odenkirk and David Cross, who were then known best for their roles on Mr. Show. The video was an early indicator of how connected Yo La Tengo—and the indie world itself—would become to the simultaneously rising alternative comedy scene. The likes of Todd Barry, H. Jon Benjamin, and Jon Glaser would go on to join Yo La Tengo onstage during sets throughout its career, especially during its now-famous Hanukkah shows at Maxwell’s.
Before Kaplan and Hubley formed Yo La Tengo proper, they spent several evenings cranking out covers with a rotating band of friends, known collectively as Georgia And Those Guys, at their home base of Maxwell’s. Never one to be trite, Kaplan insisted that each set comprise different songs from the last. The group learned nearly 100 songs over the course of a year, and its repertoire never stopped expanding. At this point it’s nearly impossible to know how many songs the band has covered, though 1,000 wouldn’t be a stretch as an estimate, and the members fittingly decided to release an album of (mostly covers) in 1990. Fakebook contains a few solid original songs, but it’s primarily a fun, twangy sing-along.
Yo La Tengo used to put its encyclopedic cover knowledge to use for WFMU, a beloved New Jersey college radio station, by performing listener requests live on air in exchange for donations. Bootleg-quality enthusiasts can enjoy a few dozen of these on-the-fly performances, featuring everything from “The Hokey Pokey” to The Replacements’ “Favorite Things,” on Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics.
As the century turned, Yo La Tengo continued its cycle of heavy touring and recording, releasing 2000’s quietly dreamy And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, which embraced the rising popularity of electronic sounds. Then there was 2003’s still-good-but-not-as-great-as-the-rest Summer Sun, an ironically named record full of songs fit for gloomy winter days. Then in 2006 the band released I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. The album was a declaration that, even after more than 20 years, Hubley and the guys were not interested in any status quo. The organ they had been incorporating into much of their repertoire came into play in a big way for most of the album, which brims with nuggets of new sounds they had been toying with, namely a brass section. The horns introduce themselves by storming in on the second track, “Beanbag Chair.” The song catches listeners pleasantly off guard by following album opener “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” a noisy jam that features Kaplan wailing on and on as McNew solemnly repeats the simple, catchy bass line. Yo La Tengo clearly entered the studio ready to wail.
“Pass The Hatchet” has become an expected staple during Yo La Tengo’s energetic sets, often clocking in at nearly 20 minutes. Though nearing 60 years old, Kaplan still enjoys flailing about onstage while generating copious noise and feedback.
Before McNew joined the band, Kaplan and Hubley played with a rotating cast of bassists. The 15th time was the charm, though, as the Dump frontman (well, everyman, technically) came on board in 1992. Though it was thought to be a temporary arrangement like those before him, McNew proved himself a worthy complement to the husband-and-wife team’s distinct style and routine. He had a knack for finding a pleasant rhythm in Kaplan’s noise. After some live shows together, McNew joined up for May I Sing With Me, Yo La Tengo’s last (and obligatory) album for Alias Records.
In 1993 the trio enthusiastically signed to Matador, a label whose identity it helped form, and released Painful. The album got its name from its grueling recording process. The three had just begun working full time as a band, and this was the first album they all created together. (Most of the songs on May I Sing With Me were more or less ready to go before McNew joined.) Despite some inherent conflicts that stemmed from a fresh lineup of perfectionists, Yo La Tengo put out an album that would rope in fans for years to come. Kaplan plainly summed up the album’s discographical significance in a statement on Matablog: “Anyone who ever said they liked our older records more than Painful, I just told them they’re wrong.” Album opener “Big Day Coming” was cut down to a mere seven minutes from the original, nearly half-hour version. It’s another staple of many live Yo La Tengo shows, often clocking in at a time somewhere in between those two. The shoegaze-influenced “From A Motel 6” is another of Painful’s standout tracks.
Yo La Tengo spent its career both creating and reflecting the evolving trends of its musical cohorts. Just as listeners were feeling fairly familiar with nearly three decades of its music, the band released 2009’s Popular Songs. Though a thoroughly enjoyable album on its own, giving it a listen with more familiarity of where the band has been makes for an appreciative and rewarding experience. This album is a surprising and delightful pivot many bands wouldn’t bother attempting after 25 years. Orchestral opener “Here To Fall” marks a distinct evolution while still containing the band’s distinguished traits.
Popular Songs, like other albums, goes on to highlight each member’s strengths in various ways—from Hubley’s pleasantly soft voice alongside an acoustic guitar to Kaplan’s funky organ on “Periodically Double Or Triple.” And, at long last, it features the first original back-and-forth pop duet between Kaplan and Hubley in “If It’s True,” and ends with three of Yo La Tengo’s signature extended jams.
After gaining a more-than-basic understanding of Yo La Tengo, a celebration is in order, making it a good time to give 1995’s Electr-O-Pura a good listen. The album builds on top of the foundation laid by Painful but is distinct enough to warrant several subsequent listens. Like Popular Songs, it is best appreciated with the added context of other albums. The mixed bag of sparsely plucked slow jams and swelling noise represent Yo La Tengo in its purest form.
When Yo La Tengo isn’t busy touring, recording, and amassing critical acclaim, it spends a fair amount of time composing film scores. Hubley’s parents were both award-winning animators, and although Georgia has a proven talent for visual art, her sister Emily took to animation as a career, and many of her pieces feature a Yo La Tengo score. In addition to those soundtracks, They Shoot, We Score is a compilation of the band’s work from four films: Old Joy, Junebug, Game 6, and Shortbus. Some of the songs pull from existing Yo La Tengo tracks, and together they create a mostly mellow soundscape. The trio also provided music for French filmmaker Jean Painleve’s series of surreal underwater shorts. The Sounds Of The Sounds Of Science premiered at the San Francisco Film Festival in 2001, where Yo La Tengo played it live to accompany the footage. The band periodically performed the score about a dozen times over the following years. More recently, it crafted a score for 2009’s Adventureland; Diablo Cody even wanted Yo La Tengo to be at the center of her breakthrough film Juno, but star Ellen Page made the case for the Moldy Peaches to be featured instead.
Over the past three decades, Yo La Tengo has cemented itself on the outer edges of the mainstream, cultivating a faithful following and enough respect to realize Hubley, Kaplan, and McNew’s passion for creating music full time. The members have managed to put the music front and center and avoid the often-messy spotlight on their personal lives. Though Kaplan and Hubley are in their 50s and McNew in his 40s, the band’s aggressive, seemingly never-ending tour dates indicate they show no signs of slowing down. In honor of Yo La Tengo’s 30th anniversary, less than a month after spending nearly half of their Fun Fun Fun Fest set wailing on a single song, the members are playing a set of shows in New York City, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. beginning December 3.
1. I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One
Key tracks: “Autumn Sweater,” “Sugarcube,” “Stockholm Syndrome”
Key tracks: “The Summer,” “Here Comes My Baby,” “Barnaby, Hardly Working”
3. I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
Key tracks: “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” “Mr. Tough,” “The Room Got Heavy”
Key tracks: “Big Day Coming,” “From A Motel 6,” “Sudden Organ”
5. Popular Songs
Key tracks: “Here To Fall,” “Nothing To Hide,” “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven”