Graded on a Curve:
Yo La Tengo,
Stupid Things

Early in 2013, Hoboken NJ’s seemingly inexhaustible indie-rock titans Yo La Tengo will return with their thirteenth studio album, and the band’s current EP Stupid Things provides a taste of what’s in store. Three versions of the same tune might infer a record containing mainly completist appeal, but there is plenty of diversity on offer here, and when matched with another terrific plunge into the heart of the band’s well defined sound, it all translates into an extremely worthy listen.

Yo La Tengo were initially thought of by this observer as a critic’s band. Let me restate that; they were considered by yours truly as a band featuring a music critic in its lineup. While as a rock writer, Ira Kaplan was never accurately described as famous, he was certainly notable, for in addition to his scribing for New York Rocker and The Village Voice, it’s his liner notes that figure on the back cover of the ROIR self-titled Bad Brains release, an essential LP if there ever was one. So, if not as well known as critic-musicians Lester Bangs and R. Meltzer, he was working in the same tradition, at least somewhat.

I add that qualifier because as much as I enjoy Bangs’ work with the Delinquents and Birdland, or Meltzer’s participation in the proto-Angry Samoan group Vom, those instances were essentially but blips on the radar screen of punkish lore along with being modest chapters in the stories of those two heavyweight writers. The fact that Lester never managed a follow-up LP with either group fits his legendary rep like a knee high tube sock, and the antagonistic snot of Vom, like so much of Meltzer’s storied career, was truly built for brevity.

But right out of the starting gate Yo La Tengo felt not like a fleeting sideline, but like a stripped-down no-nonsense kind of entity that was made to stick around for a while, a group designed to please fans of VU and Big Star and the DBs and the New Colony Six, a band possessive of an astute knowledge of rock history folded into a sensibility quite distinct from those of their contemporaries in the ‘80s u-ground rock scene. Guitarist Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley (and the handful of additional musicians that filled out the group in their first phase) didn’t connect as groundbreakers, they instead registered as knowledgeable musicians who simply wanted to come up with some tunes, play a few gigs, and knock out a few albums along the way.

The apex of this early era was 1990’s Fakebook, a true peach in their by now massive discography, a laid-back study in cover-song science (with a few originals tossed in for balance) that tackled sources as disparate as John Cale, Daniel Johnston, and Rex Garvin and presented it all as a warm, seamless whole. From there they settled down with bassist James McNew and began methodically issuing albums that helped them to become one of the leading exponents of ‘90s indie-rock. They never abandoned the down to earth nature of their early material, but they did produce a masterful string of albums that folks who’d met the band’s charms through slabs like Ride the Tiger and New Wave Hot Dogs (folks like me) would’ve likely never expected.

They also began to experiment and stretch out with consistently interesting results. And post 2000’s brilliant And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (my pick for their best record) found them climbing into the position of reliable indie elders. And if many found ‘03’s Summer Sun to be disappointing (though I didn’t) it’s also true that Ira, Georgia, and James have adjusted to their status of long-serving heads-of-the-class in the best way possible.

That’s with a shrug not of indifference but of sincere modesty. For it’s easy for casual onlookers to forget that Yo La Tengo have spent much of their long tenure functioning as a local band, performing cover requests for pledges live on New Jersey’s listener supported free-form radio behemoth WFMU every spring, and also hosting an annual eight night live music and stand-up comedy Hanukah celebration at Hoboken’s Maxwell’s nightclub.

Bands of this level of longevity often have no recourse than to reexamine past successes, mainly due to the circumstances of keeping their identity intact. It can prove a tough situation; stray too far in the attempt to keep things fresh, and many will no longer recognize you as the same group. And at the other extreme, staying to close to what’s been done before can result in releases that either seem stale or are simply inferior to the records that solidified the band’s name.

Perhaps due to the quietness of Yo La Tengo’s achievement, they’ve been able to hit upon a middle ground between repetition and expansion in a way that feels natural and not like formula, and the release of their latest EP Stupid Things displays the progression of their unforced relevance to fine effect. This limited-edition 12-inch contains three tracks, all different versions of the same song presented as a teaser for an upcoming LP that’s on the calendar to be released early next year. And with these facts in place it can be accurately described as somewhat inessential, a bone tossed to the diehards and a potential taste for new ears who may not know what the fuss is all about (their last full length Popular Songs was issued back in ’09).

But if inessential, Stupid Things is still quite substantial and gets to the core of what has made Yo La Tengo so welcome over the last twenty-five plus years. The EP opens with the “Original Version” of the titular song, a tune that will also appear on next year’s LP but with different lyrics. And through the appearance of certain by now well-examined motifs, a melancholy if far from despairing atmosphere, Georgia and James’ magnetic rhythmic simplicity, the welcome swells of keyboard that helped to shift the perception of Yo La Tengo away from that of a “guitar band” (Ira being along with Thurston Moore, Steve Albini, J Mascis, Dean Wareham, and a few others one of the “guitar heroes” of the late-’80s American underground), and the still detectable hint of Velvets influence that was cemented way back in ’87 with the group’s cover of the VU obscurity “It’s Alright (the Way that You Live).”

“Stupid Things” is a fine little tune, and if someone would’ve proposed it as an outtake from the sessions that produced And Then Nothing Turned, I would’ve likely bought that falsity hook line and sinker. And yet it’s distinct enough from where they were in 2000 to avoid the insinuation of mere by the numbers calculation, possessing the verve that’s made “Autumn Sweater” such a modern classic.

But if “Stupid Things” successfully hits upon the vibe of their mid-period’s highpoints, then the remix of the song by EYƎ aka Yamataka Eye from masters of Japanese noise-rock mayhem Boredoms, falls directly into Yo La Tengo’s penchant for the experimental. Or to be more accurate, it further illuminates their collaborative side; the Here to Fall Remixes EP from 2010 found them handing off the opening track of their last album to hip-hoppers De La Soul, RJD2, and Pete Rock, with results funky and eclectic.

The outcome here however is that “Stupid Things” is rendered all but unrecognizable, stretched, twisted and reshaped into a stuttering and at times thundering hunk of abstract sound that might seem random but holds an implicit discipline, being only seven seconds longer than the original. I find it to be a rewarding enough bout of sonic screwing around, but then again I’ve always thought highly of Boredoms. No doubt this remix will leave some Yo La Tengo fans scratching their heads, however.

But it’s really the sidelong “Original Instrumental” version of the song that makes this EP such a winner. At over twice the length of track one and shorn of Ira’s ever-appealing vocal half-whisper, this take is far more assertive, presenting rhythmic hints of Krautrock and a far greater emphasis on those sweet bursts of keyboard. But most importantly, the guitar plays a far more prominent role, with Ira given plenty of space to execute some expert string-wrangle.

While surely expansive, his playing here doesn’t rise to the heights of inspired racket the guy occasionally throws down (e.g. “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” from ‘06’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass), but that’s because he’s shooting for something else, a mood far more melodious and contemplative (a familiar to long time Yo La listeners), and the end result is a truly lovely thing to hear.

In the mid-‘90s Yo La Tengo began offering up a bruised but hopeful emotionalism that felt, at its best moments, like a spectacular soundtrack to a long but slightly anxious romantic embrace; lover’s music for those familiar with hurt but willing to take the chance all over again. The instrumental version found here revisits that zone and to splendid effect. If Stupid Things is best described as a release for fans and collectors, its contents strongly assert that Yo La Tengo’s creative ship is far from running out of steam.


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