Most bands are like jump shooters: their limited skills, talent or imagination consign them to repeating the same move over and over again. Yo La Tengo has the opposite problem. Having been proved proficient at both loud, crunchy rock songs and more delicate, decidedly indie-pop ballads, the question is, what to do now?
Over its three-decade career, the New Jersey trio--comprised of Ira Kaplan on guitar, James McNew on bass and Georgia Hubley on drums--has established itself as a rightful heir to the Velvet Underground's throne. The Velvets went from the tender beauty of "Pale Blue Eyes" to the cacophonous thrum of "Venus in Furs." Across Yo La Tengo's 13 studio albums, the band has displayed similar range.
But this equal-handed spirit is a lot harder to maintain in loud clubs and bars. More often than not, Yo La Tengo will slide in a few quieter songs as a change of pace in a rock-oriented set. But on occasion, the band has attempted entire shows of quieter material.
With its latest tour, Yo La Tengo may have hit on the perfect balance.
"There is no opening act," explained James McNew, the band's bassist for the past 22 years. "We're doing two sets--one softer, one louder."
"I really like the way it feels," McNew continued. "It allows songs we don't play very often to find a home. Songs that we didn't play at all now have a place. It's interesting because, in the quiet set, I can hear gradations of quiet, where some sound quiet, some are medium and some are almost not-quiet. It creates this new mode. It's like a different thing."
It must be the season for different things, because the band recorded its latest album, Fade, with someone other than Roger Moutenot for the first time in two decades. The group went to an old friend: John McEntire, drummer for Chicago-based bands Tortoise and The Sea and Cake.
With more than three years elapsed since the band's last record, 2009's Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo knew it needed to return to the studio, but the band also wanted to keep things interesting.
"We just wanted to do something different. We'd known John for a long time. In fact, it seemed strange that we hadn't done anything with him before," McNew said.
But there was a feeling-things-out period.
"We'd worked with Roger for so long, he knew what we liked and why. With John, we had to learn how to communicate that, and it really forced us to define and express what we wanted--which we hadn't thought about doing at the outset, but it proved to be a very positive experience," McNew said.
Popular Songs featured some of the band's prettiest pop songs--like "Avalon or Someone Very Similar" and the R&B-flavored, "If It's True"--with the 15-minute skronky guitar freakout, "The Fireside," a spacey 11-minute song and a couple rockers. Fade, on the other hand, is cut of one cloth, recalling both the dreamy atmospheric drift of the band's 1997 masterpiece, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, and the hazy, summery tenor of 2003's Summer Sun.
There are all manner of odd, idiosyncratic sounds that stretch across the album, particularly in the song intros--like the near-industrial, rubber-band rhythm of "Stupid Things," or the feedback-laden start to the eminently hummable "Paddle Forward." Dotted with sonic detail and enveloped in gauzy melody, it's an album that can swath you in comforting warmth or slowly reveal its subtle mysteries, depending on your mood.
Of course, originals are just part of what the group does. Over the years, Yo La Tengo has developed a reputation for its covers, dedicating albums to them, such as 1990's Fakebook and 2009's Fuckbook (released under the band's Condo Fucks alias). The band even does pro bono work for New Jersey's independent community radio station, WFMU. The group takes part in the iconic station's annual pledge drive by playing requests to the best of its ability/memory.
It's a blast to listen to, and the band has fun, as well. McNew described it as "one of the things that I do which I'm most proud of."
This March, Yo La Tengo broadcast live from Berlin, where it was on tour.
"They devised a way we could do it. They knew someone in Berlin who had a studio," said McNew. "It all came together such that we were able to play and communicate with each other back and forth. I can't believe it worked, and I'm so glad we did it. But it is very much like going into a trance. You're trying to get all this information out of your brain and problem solving while also letting go of that inhibition about making an ass of yourself."
McNew sees the cover song as a form of communication--a signal of community.
"When a band plays a cover, it gives me insight into who they are, and it's also a feeling like, 'Oh, you like that song? I like that song, too,'" he said. "It can be a band or a [hip-hop] producer or someone you never met and probably never will, and yet you have that in common. It's a very interesting phenomena and bond."
Though Yo La Tengo has endured in the underground rock scene long enough to become esteemed elders, it's not something its members really reflect upon. While they appreciate the accolades, they're too concerned with continuing to grow and evolve to spend much time in the past.
"It's unnatural to think about our legacy," said McNew. "There's a book that is about us and I thought it was great. I love the writer and I thought he did a good job. We gave him our full cooperation. Yet it felt so bizarre for the book to end. While the book was ending, we were writing Fade, and it is a very strange feeling. I did almost feel like I might die because the book was finishing. So mostly I try to stay 'now,' and stay in the moment."