Yo La Tengo

November 10, Metro

Many rock bands make one good album then quickly descend into mediocrity. Few can repeat the trick; even fewer spend their careers improving. But of those who do, most find their little niche and milk it until success peters out. Good bands usually depend on reinvention. Over the course of seven albums, Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo have gotten better with each release, occasionally revamping their sound and consistently exuding a creative restlessness that precludes predictability. The trio’s impassioned yet relaxed performance at Metro last week beautifully demonstrated their malleability, itching ambition, and sense of adventure–all the while finding them plainly enjoying themselves onstage.

The husband-and-wife team of guitarist and organist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley has served as the band’s core throughout its lengthy history, but it wasn’t until the arrival of bassist James McNew on 1992’s May I Sing With Me (Alias) that Yo La Tengo got its proverbial shit together. Their earliest releases, with an ever-shuffling cast of bass players, demonstrated a nicely ragged post-Velvet Underground folk-rock appeal. Kaplan’s growing confidence on guitar eventually took the band into noisier terrain as he introduced extended fractured solos, off-kilter structures, and ear-piercing feedback that often bordered on tedious self-indulgence. Kaplan loses himself when he plays, doubling over his instrument as if under its sway. On the gorgeously anomalous Fakebook (Bar/None, 1990) the group tackled a passel of rock nuggets, covering everyone from the Kinks to Peter Stampfel to the unfairly obscure The Scene Is Now in a stripped-down, quiet acoustic setting. Yo La Tengo toured extensively, exhibiting a pleasingly gentle side, but before long the barrage of feedback returned and was captured on May I Sing With Me, their least friendly outing. Working those long, largely hook-free noise vehicles while on the road enabled the band to blend the disparate elements of their music into a cogent whole. On 1993’s Painful (Matador/Atlantic) the band masterfully fused gentleness with ferocity, melody with noise, and thoughtfulness with impulsiveness, vibrantly weaving together many diverse strands.

While the recent Electr-O-Pura (Matador)–unquestionably the band’s finest recording–brilliantly continued where Painful left off, Yo La Tengo have refused to succumb to any formula. A new EP called Camp Yo La Tengo features completely revamped versions of a pair of tunes from the latest album. “Tom Courtenay” on the album is a glorious slab of pop, an infectious but slippery melody sung by Kaplan and swaddled in warmly resonant vibrato-heavy guitar that teeters between squealing and shimmering, with propulsive ba-ba-ba backing vocals and kicking rhythms. On the EP and live the band delivered a skeletal acoustic take, with Hubley’s vocals supplanting the original version’s sonic density. “Blue Line Swinger” is a dramatic epic that swells with slow-building, powerful conviction on the album; the newer version is truncated, focusing more on the the melody.

As the band’s following has grown, they’ve attracted fellow travelers and friends. At the Double Door last summer they were joined by Eleventh Dream Day guitarist Rick Rizzo on several encores. At the Metro gig several members of the Coctails joined the fray, fleshing out tunes and helping Yo La Tengo retool. They opened with “Big Day Coming”–which appears in two different versions on Painful–abetted by Barry Phipps’s wiggy theremin, which provided a highly effective buttress for Kaplan’s churning, circular feedback-based riff. Mark Greenberg added vibes to a lovely version of “The Summer,” while the chaotic descent into Half Japanese-inspired noise rock “Attack on Love” was enriched again by Phipps’s theremin and John Upchurch’s overblowing saxophone.

Covers have long been a staple of the Yo La Tengo set. In fact, the band’s unself-conscious pleasure at crossing over into what would be kitschy in other hands always conveys, at the very least, a degree of genuine appreciation for the music. One unexpected encore saw the band trudge through Adam & the Ants’ “Antmusic,” with Kaplan bashing out the beat on a second drum kit. Equally fervent were renditions of Jackson Browne’s “Somebody’s Baby” and Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band,” which summed up Kaplan’s rock obsession. His own songs are littered with references to his favorite music, from name checking Wake of the Flood on “Drug Test” to overhearing “Sympathy for the Devil” bleeding from someone’s headphones in the narrative of “Paul Is Dead” (the title itself a jokey Beatles reference). Kaplan is an unapologetic rock fan, a fact that explains much of his unfettered enthusiasm and intensity. He’s a relatively late bloomer in the rock world who spent years absorbing other people’s music before he was liberated by picking up a guitar. On the other hand, while he knows rock’s vast history inside and out, Kaplan avoids sounding professorial.

Yo La Tengo aren’t groundbreakers but extremely gifted and flexible assimilators. More than anything, they understand the mechanics of a good song. What distinguishes them from any decent pop band is their hushed respect for such songs; Yo La Tengo believe their tunes, like a diet, need variety.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James T. Crump.