Mellow And Understated
For nearly 30 years, Ira Kaplan and his wife, Georgia Hubley, have been making music that never ever disappoints. Whether it is songs that are fuzz and feedback-heavy noise rock or gentle whispered melodies, Yo La Tengo, which is the band that Kaplan and Hubley founded, is almost always a great listen. Based in Hoboken, New Jersey, Yo La Tengo was never a mainstream band and, although it has gained more popularity in recent years, it is still pretty much a cult band, a band that has often been labelled a critic’s favourite.
For me, Yo La Tengo defines laidback, lo-fi indie music, the kind that is sometimes called shoegaze music because of the tendency of the musicians to play without seeking individual acclaim or fame or the limelight. And in that business, Yo La Tengo are at the top of their game. Their 13th album, Fade, is just out and the critical acclaim has been almost unanimous. In fact, I cannot think of any of their albums being panned by the critics in the three decades that they’ve been around. Yet, it’s not too easy to find people who’ve heard a) of them or b) their music.
It’s a pity that they’re so below the radar. I fell for Yo La Tengo when I first heard them on a three-disc compilation album called Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs: 1985-2003. Spanning nearly 20 years of the band’s work, that collection was a good introduction to the range of music the band is capable of producing. What first struck me was the understated-ness of the music of Yo La Tengo. That and the contrarian aspect: Unlike much of rock music’s lyrics, where broken relationships, drugs or alcohol and depression are staple ingredients, you can find in YLT’s songs a focus on maturing of relationships, of growing old together and of facing the inevitability of mortality. Not quite the usual angst-ridden indie fare but instead a calming, subtle, yet multi-layered experience of sounds and words.
In Fade, Hubley (who plays the drums and sings) and Kaplan (guitar, piano, vocals) have kept things exactly like that. There’s an orchestra that has been recruited to complement the drums, guitars and bass (James McNew) but not in any intrusive manner. Fade is Yo La Tengo at its mellow best. Hubley sings on a few tracks and Kaplan on the rest but even when they are whispering their lines over the guitars and snare drums and bass lines, the melody is never lost. My favourite YLT albums include Painful (1993), Popular Songs (2009) and I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006), besides that first compilation that I mentioned before. Now, I’m adding Fade to the list.
Yo La Tengo manages to make two-minute songs as good as their seven or eight minute tracks. And in later years, they’ve forsaken the noisy feedback filled sound and added more hooks to their tunes. I’m glad that they’ve continued to do this in Fade. I like that constancy in their music. From the very first track, Ohm, the trademark YLT sound wafts over you, never intrusive and never overpowering. On not one of the 10 songs do you feel disinterested or want to fast-forward to the next one. Hubley sings on Cornelia and Jane and Before We Run — gently and her voice has the hint of the haunting and because that second song is the last one in the album, it is a fitting end to a great album.
Fade, I heard twice. On a commute and in the morning. But I think it’s an album that ought to be heard late at night after everyone else has gone to bed except you and you’re waiting for the morning to break. It’s also a perfect album to start your journey through the catalogue of this low profile band, moving backwards from Fade right up to their first studio album, Ride the Tiger. This is one band that I hope will last and last.
In 1968, Neil Young was 23. He played a few nights at the Canterbury House in Ann Arbor, Michigan and that album is available for R120 on iTunes. If you’re a Neil Young fan and don’t have it, I suggest you buy it. For the 24 songs of course but also for the young Young’s raps about everything from songwriting to how and why he got fired from his first job at a book store. The songs are great as well.