Hoboken’s finest, the indie-rock band Yo La Tengo, are grappling with a quandary—one that plagued Sonic Youth when they ,too surpassed the two-decade mark. That group responded to the milestone by returning to an indie label, Matador, which Yo La Tengo also calls home. But for Yo La Tengo’s singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan, his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew, each day is just another day to play music. They aren’t concerned with the historical scope of things, or other similar rock critic fodder, though, as critical darlings, writers love to hang all kinds of theories on them. This dichotomy makes it difficult to interview Kaplan. Still, we soldier on.
On their 25th anniversary, Kaplan says YLT’s career “looks like it has for a long time, except at moments. We’re not really thinking about things that way, just working.”
Hmm. How then to parse the symbolic importance of “Autumn Sweater” or the filmic resonance of “Deeper Into Movies.” On the other hand, maybe there isn’t a lot more to the perfectly crafted hooks and introspective lyrics, always catchy yet incredibly smart—maybe a little too smart.
They are just egging on would-be interpreters with their archly titled new release, Popular Songs (Matador), with art by Dario Robleto, the cover depicting a mangled cassette tape with the album title dated 1977. Is it a play on the position of being a critically acclaimed band that mainstream audiences might ask, “Yo La Who?”
“I wouldn’t have said we’re thinking about that,” Kaplan responds. “On the other hand, the name resonated with us for reasons we might not even be in touch with.”
Of course, YLT aren’t oblivious to their mystique. When asked about the secret to their longevity, Kaplan shrugs. “I don’t know, I think we’re just lucky, if you assume what we’re doing is a good thing. We’re fortunate there’s an audience.” He notes that it’s interesting how many groups have, in recent years, followed their lead—from the instrumental scholasticism of Andrew Bird to the noisy melodies of Deerhoof and studied romanticism of The Decemberists. Yo La Tengo are also noted interpreters of others’ works, covering Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby” for the film Rushmore, for example.
Popular Songs is a recapitulation of all the elements that make Yo La Tengo’s music great: dreamy pop hooks, noisy guitar riffs and thoughtful instrumental meditations. But Kaplan doesn’t compartmentalize these elements. “I’m not sure we even distinguish them that much. ‘More Stars Than There Are in Heaven’ is nine minutes long, but it still feels poppy to me,” he says.
The set starts right out of the gate with “Here To Fall,” (in love, of course), putting their heart right on the line, an inexorable, string-driven tour de force, and then the jangly melody of “Avalon or Someone Very Similar.” “Nothing To Hide” with its guitar distortion, organ riff and vocal melodies could stand up against classic Yo La Tengo tunes like “Cherry Chapstick.”
One thing that Kaplan acknowledges: Yo La Tengo songs, if not about love, are about what goes through the heads of people in love.
“In your day-to-day life, isn’t it something you think about a lot? It’s a topic of endless discussion,” he says. But as far as their take on it, he defers. “I’m not completely unwilling to talk about it. The answer wouldn’t be much different than the question about the album title.”
It’s not by accident that YLT’s records have no lyric sheets; they want people to make of them what they will. The new album does fit into the progression of their body of work, he admits, if only a chronological one. At the recent Pitchfork festival, fans were invited to “Write the Night” and select set lists by some of the bands. It was an odd experience. It seemed more intense, somehow; the hooks had more hook; the noisy guitar breaks more chaotic.
“As a listener, I don’t want to know everything,“ Kaplan says. “Sometimes, we have a distorted idea of what our old songs sound like; their sound in my head is different from the sound on record.”
YLT’s songs seem to be almost living, breathing entities. “A song changes just in the act of people getting to know it,“ he says of premiering some of the new songs at Pitchfork. Yo La Tengo’s music is as perennial and recyclable as Robleto’s buttons made from melted-down Billie Holiday records on the album’s back cover. In the Beach Boys' music, it’s endless summer, but in the world of Yo La Tengo, autumn rules.
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