Graded on a Curve:
Yo La Tengo,
President Yo La Tengo

What’s not to like about 1996’s President Yo La Tengo? On it everybody’s favorite New Wave hotdogs express an urge to do drugs, name drop my favorite literary figure, deliver up some of the most discordant guitar mayhem this side of the Velvet Underground’s “I Heard Her Call My Name,” wax pretty as can be, and cover Bob Dylan and Antietam just to prove they can do it all.

The indie rock husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan (guitar and vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums and vocals) have produced an embarrassment of riches over the years, in part because they have impeccable taste (which isn’t to say they’re necessarily tasteful) and an encyclopedic knowledge of rock history. More importantly, they know when to play rough and when to play nice with others. Theirs is a Jekyll and Hyde dynamic, and the tension between the two can be enthralling.

On President Yo La Tengo we get to meet both Jekyll and Hyde. The civilized Jekyll comes to us via “Alyda,” a lovely little number with a delightful melody that will make you swoon thanks to Hubley’s wonderfully understated drumming and lovely backing vocals. And Yo La Tengo is definitely in Jekyll mode on their slow and homely take on Dylan’s “I Threw It All Away,” which is both wistful and heartbreaking and (I think you’ll agree) does old Bobby proud.

On the Hyde side we have Yo La Tengo’s cover of Antietam’s “Orange Song,” which they play the hell out of at hardcore speed. The recipe is simple: Nice guy Kaplan puts a lot of growl into his vocals and plays some very mean guitar, while Hubley crashes and smashes away on the drums in the apparent belief that she’s the reincarnation of John Bonham. The result is a mosh pit in your mind, and you’re invited! This one was recorded live at CBGB, as was “The Evil That Men Do (Pablo’s Version).”

The latter number is flat out ugly; it’s the soundtrack to that awful moment in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famed novella when Dr. Jekyll’s ugly half tramples a little girl on a darkened street. “The Evil That Men Do” is chaos for the hell of it, and reveals Kaplan to be every faithful a protégé of the VU as Jonathan Richman. Unlike our sensitive Jonathan, however, Kaplan has absolutely zero qualms about hurting little babies’ ears.

My favorite two songs on the LP fall somewhere in the middle of the Jekyll/Hyde spectrum. “Barnaby, Hardly Working” is a midtempo groove overlaid by a weird guitar drone and some equally heavy guitar riffs; Kaplan’s seemingly serene vocals are undercut by indefinable menace. “I could wait for hours,” he sings, and “Never fall down, never fall down.”

“Drug Test,” on the other hand, is a crashing comedown about a guy who can’t stand feeling the way he feels and wishes he was high. What’s a guy to do in such circumstances? Turn on “Wake of the Flood,” of course, because it’s a big fat bummer and the perfect listen when you realize you’re “smarter than nobody” and “wasting away.” “Drug Test” might as well be called “Tired Eyes Revisited” because it limns the great indie rock dope bringdown just as effectively as Neil Young limned the great hippie dope bringdown with “Tired Eyes.”

Yo La Tengo know their rock’n’roll—their exquisite taste in covers constitutes a large part of their charm. They possess both the smarts and the sense of humor to tweak the title of Bob Dylan’s “From a Buick 6” to “From a Motel 6” and use it as cover for what is in effect a pretty good Cure parody, and they do something equally absurd on “We’re an American Band,” which isn’t a Grand Funk cover but (bet you didn’t see this one coming) a loving tribute to Stereolab. But they’ve earned their rock bona fides with such brilliant originals as “Barnaby, Hardly Working” and “Drug Test.” On such numbers they’re not goofing on anyone and don’t owe a debt to anybody. Yo La Tengo is Spanish for “I have it” and they most definitely have it. In spades.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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