Instant Expert: Yo La Tengo
You’ve seen them at parties, lurking in the corner, waiting to engage in battle disguised as conversation. They’re indie rock know-it-alls, and no matter what band or musician you mention, they’ve got an opinion — strong and almost certainly negative — ready to ram down your throat. With Instant Expert, we offer preparation for these very situations. Each Thursday, in advance of your weekend carousing, we pick an artist and provide a quickie career overview, highlighting both prevailing critical opinions and the inevitable contrarian counterarguments. Even if you’re completely unfamiliar with the music, you’ll be able to bluff your way through and defend your indie cred. This week: Yo La Tengo.
There aren't too many bands that have accomplished what Yo La Tengo has over the past quarter century: They've progressively gotten better, one small step at a time, to the point where their extensive catalog plays out like one long, involved story with increasingly intense chapters. It took a while for the New Jersey trio -- fronted by the husband-wife duo of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley -- to nail down a sound. Their early albums are spotty and often difficult to wade through; 1990's 'Fakebook' is their first consistently listenable one. Over a dozen albums and assorted EPs, they've balanced distorted feedback-fueled freak-outs with wispy dream-pop. Sometimes they unplug, sometimes they plug in and turn it up to 11. And they've been known to throw in some drum loops from time to time. Through it all, they've remained one of indie rock's most reliable bands.
Thing is, no one can agree which Yo La Tengo album is their best. They made three great albums in a row: 1993's 'Painful,' 1995's 'Electr-O-Pura' and 'I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One,' from 1997. And besides a few shifts in tone here and there, they all sound somewhat the same. But 'Painful,' which was their sixth album, came first. It's the record where they finally learned how to write songs instead of just foggy set pieces.
This isn't so much a contrarian counterargument as it is an extension of the above critical consensus. 'I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One' is their most diverse record -- they stretch out with some surf rock, psych-rock and a cover of the Beach Boys' 'Little Honda.'
Those three albums everyone praises all sound the same. Yo La Tengo were at their best before they got too stuffy and ambitious with their music. Their 1990 album 'Fakebook' -- which they recorded for a real indie label, is their greatest, no contest.
Aren't Yo La Tengo just a '90s New Jersey version of the Velvet Underground?