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Have You Heard of Yo La Tengo

Observer Scene | Friday, March 14, 2008

I know that upon seeing the headline of one my reviews of an obscure band (even though I was money on my prediction that Vampire Weekend would be huge), many of you just shake your heads, mutter “Who?” and move on to the comics. At least, that’s what I used to do.

Well, I want people to understand where I’m coming from; my musical background, if you will. So, I came up with the idea of introducing you to some bands and artists that I feel you, as a fan of music, should possibly explore.

I admit everything I say is going to be entirely my opinion, but these are bands and artists I recommend to my friends when they ask me for some new music. Consider yourselves my new friends.

The first band I want to talk about is also one of my all-time favorites. In fact, I consider them to be the greatest band still working. I went to a show they put on over Winter Break, and it only cemented my opinion.

Yo La Tengo, despite their name, is not a mariachi band. In fact, they’re a modest indie rock trio out of Hoboken, N.J. Throughout their career they’ve been experimenting and perfecting guitar-driven noise rock and melodic pop. While these two genres sound disparate, Yo La Tengo brings them together in way that is entirely unique. They’ve made songs that could fit into folk, rock, pop, country, jazz or punk genres, and they’ve done it all to perfection.

They’ve been leaders in the independent music scene since 1984, and have released over 15 albums since then. I know that sounds daunting to someone who wants to try some Yo La Tengo and has no idea where to start, but I’m here to help.

Without a doubt, you should start with their 1993 album “Painful.” It was the first album husband-wife team Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley produced entirely with their now-permanent bassist, James McNew. Not only is it the best Yo La Tengo album, it’s also one of the best albums of the 90s. This album should be in everyone’s record collection.

“Painful” beautifully encompasses everything that Yo La Tengo does well. There are slow, melodic, dreamy songs. There are a few great feedback-driven rock tracks. (Coincidentally, there are two versions of the song “Big Day Coming” on the album that fit into both these two categories.) Finally, there are some beautiful guitar pop songs (“Nowhere Near”, “The Whole of the Law”), which are absolutely breathtaking.

If, after hearing “Painful,” you find yourself in love with Yo La Tengo, you may want to move on to their 1997 album “I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.” This album expands the scope of the band’s focus while maintaining their unique sound. Songs on this album range from a great cover of the Beach Boys song “Little Honda” to extended guitar freak-outs from Ira (“Spec Bebop”).

Finally, I suggest their latest release, 2006’s “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass,” which expands their scope even more to include chamber-pop (“Black Flowers”), 50s rock (“Watch Out For Me Ronnie”), and piano rock (“The Weakest Part”).

If you’ve tried these three albums and are still thirsty for more, they have more albums that are a little more focused than the ones I suggested, and therefore a little more niche. 2003’s “Summer Sun” focuses more on the pop aspect of their sound, while 2000’s “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out” focuses more on their melodic, dreamy drone. Their older albums like 1990’s collection of covers “Fakebook” and 1992’s “May I Sing With Me” have hidden treasures all their own.

Do yourself a favor and check out one of the best kept secrets of the American independent music scene. You will be glad you did.

Contact Mychal Stanley at wstanley@nd.edu.