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Pillow Talk 

As the members of Yo La Tengo have grown up, they've also grown inward

Wednesday, Mar 8 2000
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Yo La Tengo is a trio, not a duo. This mundane factoid seems important to mention, given early response to the Hoboken, N.J., band's ninth studio album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. It's a remarkably meditative record for a group that formed in the mid-'80s as a feedback-driven indie rock act, and continued with that sound through most of the '90s. Inside-Out, though, suggests intimacy, with its slow, loping songs and whispery, romantic vocals, and the album's been held up as a mirror of the marriage of guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley.

Still, there's a bassist in the band too -- James McNew -- and Kaplan wants to emphasize his place. "He doesn't sing as many lead vocals and doesn't write as many lyrics and doesn't do as many guitar solos," says Kaplan. "But other than that he's just as involved as any of us in the writing of the songs, in the arranging of the songs, the playing on the record. Because of the marriage it's easy to overlook his contributions. It's not our favorite part of reading things that are written about us. It's just inaccurate."

But it's somewhat understandable. Kaplan's and Hubley's conversational vocals -- which of the two is singing is often unclear, their timbral qualities are so similar -- carry much of the songs' weight on Inside-Out. And what comes out of their mouths is revealing, almost unsettlingly so. "You don't want to listen/ But I can't shut up," Kaplan laments on "The Crying of Lot G"; on "Our Way to Fall," he recollects, "I remember walking up to you .../ And I remember staring at my feet." And then there are the opening lines of "Last Days of Disco," which in tension and simplicity recall William Carlos Williams: "I saw you at a party/ You asked me to dance/ You said the music was great for dancing/ I don't really dance much/ But this time I did/ And I was glad that I did/ This time." Richard and Linda Thompson traded barbs on their records, but the stuff Kaplan and Hubley sing about now is more basic relationship stuff -- no major crises are presented, but it's like overhearing a couple talking privately in a restaurant: You can't help but listen, even though you know you shouldn't.

This is a strange turn of events. When the band formed in Hoboken in 1984 with a revolving membership (McNew joined in 1992), lyrics weren't its selling point. Coming out of a Hoboken scene that had produced the jittery jangle-pop of the Feelies, Yo La Tengo developed as an attempt to merge some of that band's folksier tendencies with the Velvet Underground's White Light/White Heat feedback drones and frenzies. Yo La Tengo was part of the East Coast rock scene but never fell into the sophisticated downtown milieu of, say, Sonic Youth. "One of the things we have always liked about being in Hoboken is the way it does offer that self-sufficient-unit aspect," says Kaplan. "We're a little bit isolated in that way geographically, but we are at the same time right next to New York."

The band's signature song was the hypnotic "Barnaby, Hardly Working" from 1989's President Yo La Tengo, which presented the band's signature drowsy vocals and ethereal guitarwork on a bed of simple tunefulness. The vague Herman Melville reference of the title gave the band a rep as a literate rock act. Add to that the winning, modest collection of obscure covers on 1990's Fakebook (giving the Flamin' Groovies, the Kinks, and Peter Stampfel their due), and Yo La Tengo quickly endeared themselves to the critical community, of which Kaplan himself was once a part.

While Kaplan protests "I don't really know or care" what role the band played in the '90s independent rock scene, there's little question that the group was one of its leading lights -- philosophically, if not commercially. Some even quibbled when the band's label, Matador, struck a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Yo La Tengo's one release during that period -- 1993's Painful -- is still the band's best record, the moment where the group galvanized all its disparate ideas about melody and guitar noise. Onstage, the songs expanded and contracted -- Painful songs like the instrumental "I Heard You Looking" would explode into extended psychedelic freakouts.

The band varied the theme slightly for the '95 follow-up Electr-O-Pura, while 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One marked the group's initial move into more introspective territory, though that record often seems slight and formless (a rush-job collaboration with Half Japanese's Jad Fair around the same time, Strange But True, was similarly flawed). Likewise, Inside-Out at first sounds clinical, slow, and chilly -- it's based more on organs than on guitars. But at heart, it's a pop record; there are hooks on songs like "Everyday" and "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" for those with the patience to hear the intimacy they underscore. That word -- intimacy -- is something Kaplan takes to. "We are probably less consciously afraid of that," he says. "I think in years past there would have been a greater reluctance to open ourselves up as much as we are willing to open ourselves up now."

That "opening up" resulted in a collection of understated songs is as surprising to Kaplan as anybody else. "That wasn't the goal," he says. "It wasn't like we set out to write a bunch of quiet songs. Those were just the ones that came out. In that regard, it wasn't like ... it wasn't a difficulty. At a certain point, we knew that all the songs were coming out in a certain way." The sole anomaly on the record is "Cherry Chapstick," an erotic-themed, guitar-driven rave-up more in keeping with Yo La Tengo's earlier work, and the band fussed over the song when sequencing the record. "Lyrically, it fits right in," says Kaplan, "[but] musically, we did think quite a bit about it. At one point we considered not recording it at all, we considered not putting it on the record. Ultimately, we just thought that in the spot it occupied on the record, it kind of provided what we at least thought was a surprisingly gentle change of pace."

When the band plays in San Francisco this week at the Great American Music Hall -- with Lambchop, which just released a fine record of its own, the similarly understated Nixon -- the show will be a seated one, which isn't a particularly indie-rock concept. "We just hope we can convince the audience to get quiet when we get quiet," says Kaplan.

In a way, it's a risk -- trying to convince a crowd of folded-armed noise fans that playing it modest and slow is just as expressive as massaging feedback. "There are a lot of intimate moments, and they're not only the quiet ones," Kaplan argues. "The 10-minute guitar solo is popularly referred to as self-indulgent. I don't have a problem with that description -- except as an insult. Of course it's self-indulgent. But so is this record. I think to sing so quietly about your feelings for 78 minutes is also self-indulgent. It's still just opening up yourself."

Yo La Tengo performs with Lambchop Friday, March 10, at 8 p.m. (sold out), Saturday, March 11, at 2 and 8 p.m. (8 p.m. show sold out), and Sunday, March 12, at 8 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk), S.F. Tickets are $14; call 885-0750.

About The Author

Mark Athitakis

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