Yo La Tengo
February 22, 2011
@ The Fox
Better than: Paying $25 to see Pat Sajak do whatever it is he would do at the Fox.
When, from time to time, I found myself wondering offhand what it was like at the Odd Future/Golf Wang/OFWGKTA show back across the bridge or tunnel, the answer was always the same: probably the exact opposite of this.
The three lovable minstrels of Yo La Tengo -- which has weathered no lineup changes since I was eight years old -- are not boundary-pushing, edge-playing upstarts intent on articulating the seasons of their discontent; they're not threatening or dangerous or difficult to buy into. They're wholesome and smart and charming New Jerseyites, unassumingly talented musicians who seem more like a family than a band, and the most controversial thing about them is that they're thoroughly, monumentally uncontroversial. The excitement of Yo La Tengo is the excitement of clothes fresh from the dryer, not the excitement of using a stiletto heel to pierce your best friend's ear while he sleeps.
They're still great entertainers, though, and nobody at the Fox last night expected otherwise. Good will was at a preemptive high for their two sets, the first of which was governed by an utterly winning gimmick: a random audience member's spin of the Wheel of Destiny (it's an actual wheel!) determines whether Yo La Tengo plays only songs by its pseudo-alter-ego Condo Fucks, or only songs that begin with the letter S, or acts out "a classic sitcom" and maybe plays some songs also. The trio took the stage to cheesy game-show music, explained the premise, had some guy named Colin spin the wheel (he won a mug, I think), and left again to prepare. Everyone was happy just to be hanging out with a band that would think up such a shtick -- imagine U2 trying to do this, or Interpol, or Wu-Tang Clan -- and nobody begrudged them the ability to get away with it.
The band re-emerged as Dump, the longtime solo project of YLT bassist James McNew, and played a concise set of lively, toe-tapping midtempo ditties. The takeaway highlight was a masterful indie-rock reading of Prince's "The Beautiful Ones" in which McNew turned from shabby video store clerk to shabby lothario burning with passion, but only for the space of a refrain. But the others were equally effective, wavering between sedate Neil Young-style keening and raucous guitar shredding, pulled together by a persistent grunge undertow not unlike the distorted guitar in the Alan Parsons Project's "Sirius," which lent the set a vibe pleasingly reminiscent of the Chicago Bulls' mid-'90s championship run. (Or was that just me?) Dump records are typically thin-sounding by design, and their full-band incarnations sound considerably less distinct from Yo La Tengo songs, but then so much the better; that's who we were there to see. Twenty minutes after that set ended, Yo La Tengo returned as Yo La Tengo: McNew and guitarist Ira Kaplan switched spots on stage and traded some weapons-grade amplifier squeals, and then without a word drummer Georgia Hubley led them into a noisy, rollicking, feedback-drenched version of the 1997 hit "Sugarcube." (Watch the video now. I don't care if you've seen it before.) From there, a sampler of just how much ground the band has covered, historically and stylistically, in 25 years: teapot hurricanes, lilting ballads, droney lullabies, extended noise vamp and mod-glam strut (the organ solo in "Periodically Double or Triple" looked and sounded like zombie surgery). Kaplan roved around the stage, choking his guitar like a chicken or twirling it like a rifle; McNew and Hubley manned their respective stations calmly, no need to chew the scenery. The Great Gaylord ("the greatest lousy singer of all time"), who came out for two songs during the encore, brought the first and only genuine rock-star presence of the entire evening; it was good to see it, if only to be reminded how little it was needed until then. There was something inherently strange about seeing a band called The Urinals play at the Fox, where the actual urinals are as specious and well-appointed as some clubs I've been to. They are a tiny group -- no smaller than Yo La Tengo, personnel-wise, but huddled together even closer on the Fox's massive stage, as though for warmth. Fortunately, their sound was equally massive (thanks no doubt to the amplifiers far outnumbering them on stage), even a little polished: it's a driving pre-post-punk punk with double-time cymbal work and vaguely Ramonesian vocals. Their songs are quick melodic blasts with unpredictable structural connections and abrupt endings, and it's anyone's guess -- or in any case that of a more scrupulously attentive showgoer -- how many songs they actually played during their 50-minute set. Given that the Urinals formed in 1979, it's easy to parse them as a seminal group, to trace elements of their formula forward in time rather than backward: sure enough, this is probably where Yo La Tengo got some of its guitar squall (and maybe the chord progression for "I Heard You Looking"), where Green Day got its bass sound, where any number of sugary neo-punk acts since the '90s copped some of their moves. But what if The Urinals were 20-year-olds last night, playing the exact same songs at the Rickshaw Stop or the Smell? Or what if, 30 years from now, that's Odd Future in the same position, brought back by their better-known disciples to show us where a certain kind of sound came from?
• Did Yo La Tengo make feedback cool? Discuss.
• "Decora," from 1995's Electr-O-Pura, was an unexpected delight.
• Those Buddhas flanking the stage really should have lasers shooting out of their eyes.