Yo La Tengo takes stage in Aspen
ASPEN – For their latest album, “Popular Songs,” released last month, Yo La Tengo wanted string parts for two of the songs. The New Jersey trio – guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, who are married, and bassist James McNew – had used strings before, but this time they wanted proper string sections, organized by an experienced arranger. “We knew we couldn’t do it in the usual way – sit with the track and a Casio [keyboard] and come up with a string arrangement,” said the 40-ish McNew. In the fashion of true music geeks, the threesome diligently combed their record collections, listening for scintillating string parts and checking who had been behind them.”We decided to go all the way and started asking, Who are our favorite string arrangers?” said McNew, who lives in Brooklyn and commutes daily to the band’s rehearsal studio in Hoboken, N.J., a town Yo La Tengo has become closely associated with. “And who’s still working, who’s still alive?”The research led them to Richard Evans, who had been producer/arranger for the Chicago-based soul label, Cadet; leader of the ’60s group, the Soulful Strings; and bassist for space-jazz man Sun Ra. “He was the heaviest of the heavy hitters in our mind,” said McNew of Evans. “And we tracked him down. Thankfully, he checks his e-mail every once in while. He teaches at Berklee College of Music, in Boston. And he was into the idea of doing arrangements for us.”Evans was working blind in contributing string arrangements for two tracks on “Popular Songs.” The collaboration was done long-distance; Evans never ventured to New Jersey to meet Kaplan, Hubley and McNew. And before receiving the e-mail, he had never heard of the indie-rockers.”He had no idea who Yo La Tengo was,” McNew said. “I never would have expected him to.”It’s easy to see how Yo La Tengo would have escaped Evans’ notice. Yo La Tengo is one of those bands – critical darlings with a small but devoted audience – that requires some digging to find. The interesting thing is that McNew himself, in a way, has little idea of what Yo La Tengo is. He claims to have little perspective on the band’s musical style or its place in rock ‘n’ roll. The fact that McNew wasn’t there at the band’s inception, in 1984, is no excuse; even with the late start, he has clocked 18 years and eight studio albums with the band. He signed on in 1991 to play bass for a month of dates in the Midwest and in Europe. “I just kept showing up for practice,” is his explanation for his permanent status in the group. Yo La Tengo has been called “the quintessential critics’ band,” but McNew doesn’t know what to say about the group.Here’s McNew on any influence Yo La Tengo may have had on other bands: “I don’t know that we’ve ever been part of a movement or clique that had a name. I think we’ve kind of existed in our own world a lot of the time.” McNew on the band’s sound and approach to music that first attracted him to join up: “I don’t know if I can describe that band any better than I can describe it now. There’s no handy catch phrase. I was a fan, already loved the group.” McNew on the notion that Yo La Tengo might have laid the foundation for indie rock: “I never thought of us as being a pioneer or a groundbreaker in any way. I’m more interested in us making music than in trying to hold up our legacy.” And McNew on the future of a band that has been around for 25 years: “I don’t know. I’ve never thought about it and that has worked out well so far.”••••In a fundamental way, Yo La Tengo can seem unknowable. Despite the title of their new album, they have never had anything like a radio hit. “Popular Songs,” though, debuted at 58 on Billboard’s album chart, the band’s highest showing yet. Their musical range is enormous; their style changes from album to album and song to song. Take just the two tunes featuring Richard Evans’ string arrangements. “If It’s True” is breezy pop, with strings straight out of ’60s Motown. “Here to Fall,” which opens the album, is darkly psychedelic, dense and bracing. On the lyrical side, both speak of an emotional duality, of living with optimism while recognizing the surrounding gloom.The lines “Let’s make jam when life gives us a peach” and “With every passing day the end draws near” are back-to-back in “If It’s True.” “We’ll push back against the sorrow/ Wait for the sun when we get blue,” goes “Here to Fall.” The album’s final 27 minutes feature almost no lyrics: The 11-minute “The Fireside” is gently atmospheric, built around a simple acoustic guitar figure, with two brief poetic verses about love and death. “Popular Songs” closes with a track that is sure never to be heard on commercial radio: “And The Glitter Is Gone,” nearly 16 minutes of gloriously messy guitar noise.Through their dozen studio albums, Yo La Tengo has veered in numerous directions. “Fakebook,” from 1990, was built on folky acoustic guitar and featured a bunch of cover songs. With 1993’s “Painful,” the first album to feature McNew as a full-time member and the first made with Roger Moutenot, who would become their steady producer, the experimentalism began in earnest. “Electr-O-Pura,” from 1995, was driven by electric guitar and drums. “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One” synthesized punk, surf, electronics and more guitar excursions.On 2000’s “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out,” Yo La Tengo dramatically dialed down the volume, a tactic that continued through the subsequent album, “Summer Sun.” “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass” earned its title with the opening track, “Pass the Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind,” eleven instrumental minutes of aggressive guitar. But the album was highlighted by “Mr. Tough,” which featured an infectious falsetto vocal and punchy horns.••••For a band that clearly hasn’t run out of ideas, Yo La Tengo has infinite affection for material written by others. Each spring they do a benefit event for the New Jersey radio station WFMU: Fans call in, make a pledge, and request a song, any song, for the trio to play live on the spot.”We don’t rehearse it. There’s no way we can rehearse it,” said McNew, who credits his eclectic tastes to the college radio station in his native Charlottesville, home of the University of Virginia. “We go live on the air and for three hours make idiots of ourselves. It’s fairly unlistenable. But it can be pretty entertaining.” The band has released several albums of covers: “Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics” features tunes by the Velvet Underground, Billy Joel, Yes and Yoko Ono; “Fuckbook,” released in March under the pseudonym Condo Fucks, had songs by Ray Davies, Brian Wilson and Felix Cavaliere.At one of the recent radio shows, a fan asked for “Come Sail Away.” The band set the request off to the side, while McNew kept thinking about the Styx hit. Eventually, he says, “I remembered every word and every chord, and surprised myself as much as everyone else. It’s amazing what the mind can hold onto and what it should get rid of.”Yo La Tengo has created a separate niche for itself, as the indie band that makes soundtracks for indie films. That sidetrack began in 2001, when they created a score for eight documentary shorts, all filmed underwater. Their debut working in feature films came with the hit “Junebug”; they have since recorded soundtracks for “Shortbus” and “Old Joy” – two more acclaimed, offbeat movies. The band’s penchant for clever, or odd, album titles hit a peak with a collection of their soundtrack work: “They Shoot, We Score.”The band’s name itself hints not at an artistic influence – Latin is one of the few musical styles that doesn’t figure in their make-up – but at their attraction to the odd. The New York Mets in their inaugural year of 1962 were known not just as bad, but comically inept. Collisions between shortstop Elio Chacn and center fielder Richie Ashburn were a routine mishap. It was pointed out to Ashburn that calling out “I got it!” while settling under a fly ball didn’t register for Chacn, who spoke no English. Ashburn was advised to shout “Yo la tengo” – Spanish for “I got it!” The next time a fly ball came his way, Ashburn did as he was told, Chacn properly backed off – and Ashburn promptly got clobbered by right fielder Frank Thomas, who asked, “What does ‘Yellow tango’ mean?”This past February saw the release of “Dark Was the Night,” the latest in a series of compilations that raise funds to fight AIDS. The two-CD set featured mostly bands that fall into the young, indie and experimental category: Grizzly Bear, Iron & Wine, the Decemberists, Arcade Fire, as well as a Yo La Tengo song, “Gentle Hour.” It made the New Jersey veterans seem like indie godfathers, laying a track for others to follow. But McNew thinks of the band more as a throwback than as innovators.”A lot of our tendencies tend to be behind our time instead of ahead of our time,” he said. “We record all in the same room, our mikes bleeding into each other’s channels. We write together as a group, slowly. We tend to take the scenic route.”In another way, Yo La Tengo is as modern as they come. They are a product of the modern way of listening, in which Afro-pop, ’70s punk and electronica – as well as a master producer of ’60s soul strings – are all equally accessible.”We all listen to all sorts of things. When we listen to records at home, it’s not one type of music. We all responded to that pretty urgently,” McNew said. “It’s not something we nobly uphold. It’s just who we are. If it’s us playing it, then it’s us.”email@example.com
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