Yo La Tengo Biography
Last updated: 10/19/2009 12:00:00 PM
Yo La Tengo was in many respects the quintessential critics' band: in addition to its adventurous eclecticism, defiant independence, and restless creative ambition -- three qualities that virtually guarantee music press acclaim -- the group's frontman, Ira Kaplan, even tenured as a rock scribe prior to finding success as a performer. So frequently compared to the Velvet Underground that they even portrayed the legendary group in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, the Hoboken, NJ-based unit explored the extremes of feedback-driven noise rock and sweetly melodic pop, shading its work with equal parts scholarly composure and fannish enthusiasm. Prolific and mercurial, Yo La Tengo ultimately transcended its myriad influences to ensconce itself as a beloved institution of the indie community.
The core of Yo La Tengo (Spanish for the outfielder's cry of "I've got it!") was comprised of singer/guitarist Kaplan and his wife, drummer/vocalist Georgia Hubley. After forming the band in 1984, they placed an advertisement seeking other musicians to round out the lineup, requesting applicants who shared their fondness for the Soft Boys, Mission of Burma, and Arthur Lee's Love. A number of bassists and lead guitarists passed through the band's roster during its formative years, but after bowing in late 1985 with the single "The River of Water," backed by a cover of Love's "A House Is Not a Motel," Yo La Tengo's membership appeared to stabilize with the additions of guitarist Dave Schramm and bassist Mike Lewis prior to the sessions for 1986's full-length roots pop debut, Ride the Tiger, produced by former Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley.
However, both Schramm and Lewis exited in the wake of the record's release, leaving Kaplan to assume lead guitar duties. Bassist Stephan Wichnewski signed on for 1987's New Wave Hot Dogs, a more assured outing that brought the group's Velvet Underground obsession to the fore via a cover of the early VU composition "It's Alright (The Way That You Live)." Not only did Kaplan's introverted, half-spoken vocals and buzzing guitar work closely recall Lou Reed, but Hubley's rock-steady drumming and breathy backing turns simultaneously conjured memories of vintage Maureen Tucker. Even better was 1989's President Yo La Tengo, recorded with producer and guest bassist Gene Holder; opening with the droning squalls of the stunning "Barnaby, Hardly Working," the record spotlighted the group's sonic schizophrenia by including two Jekyll-and-Hyde versions of the track "The Evil That Men Do" -- one a gorgeous instrumental, the other a blistering feedback freakout.
Schramm returned to the fold for 1990's Fakebook, a remarkable acoustic folk-pop journey through Kaplan's record collection and a virtual family tree of Yo La Tengo reference points. A wonderfully low-key collection of covers ranging from forgotten nuggets (the Kinks' "Oklahoma U.S.A.," the Flamin' Groovies' "You Tore Me Down," Gene Clark's "Tried So Hard") to absolute obscurities (Rex Garvin & the Mighty Cravers' "Emulsified," the Escorts' "The One to Cry," the Scene Is Now's "Yellow Sarong"), Fakebook also included a handful of outstanding new originals as well as luminous retakes of the previous record's "Barnaby, Hardly Working" and New Wave Hot Dogs' "Did I Tell You?" The superb That Is Yo La Tengo EP previewed 1992's May I Sing With Me, the first effort to feature permanent bassist James McNew (formerly of Christmas). A return to noise typified by the hot-wired nine-minute feedback saga "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss," the record balanced out its extremist tendencies with the occasional sidestep into melodic beauty ("Detouring America With Horns") and infectious indie pop ("Upside-Down").
A move to the Matador label predated the release of 1993's Painful, another winner informed by the atmospherics of shoegazer drones and dream pop. Bookended by radically opposed renditions of the track "Big Day Coming" -- the first an organ-driven mood piece, the other an edgy guitar outing -- the record pushed Yo La Tengo in a multitude of new directions, significantly expanding the trio's palette of sounds and textures. Released in 1995, Electr-o-Pura continued the progression, zigzagging from dead-on British Invasion re-creations (the sparkling "Tom Courtenay") to shimmering folk (the Hubley-sung "Pablo and Andrea") to bracing sonic experimentation ("Decora"). After 1996's Genius + Love Equals Yo La Tengo, a two-disc compendium of B-sides, compilation tracks, rare singles, and unreleased material, the trio resurfaced in the spring of 1997 with I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One; And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out followed in early 2000.
The group also performed a three-night stint as the backing band for Ray Davies on his 2000 U.S. tour, and in 2002 released The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, a soundtrack to the undersea documentaries of French filmmaker Jean Painleve. That fall, they released the Nuclear War single, which featured several versions of Sun Ra's epic, and that winter performed their second annual Hanukkahpalooza, an eight-night musical festival at Hoboken, NJ's Maxwell's, which also featured a special limited-edition EP of Christmas songs. Yo La Tengo released Summer Sun in spring 2003, and that year Georgia Hubley performed in Mirror Man, an avant-garde rock opera by Pere Ubu's David Thomas. In 2005, Matador Records paid homage to the band's twentieth year as recording artists with the career-spanning compilation Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs: 1985-2003. Jason Ankeny