Yo La Tengo - Biography
In many ways Yo La Tengo is the quintessential ‘90s indie rock band. Pavement or Guided By Voices might get more votes in that contest, but no other band has managed to combine the workingman’s indie rock with such a thorough sense of daring sonic experimentation as Yo La Tengo. Through the group’s beginnings mixing punk, Velvets-inspired rock deconstruction and melodic pop to later experiments with free-jazz and electronics, the trio has always been stylistically adventurous while maintaining its core sound to become one of indie rock’s most loved bands.
Yo La Tengo formed in Hoboken, New Jersey in 1984 around the core duo of husband and wife Ira Kaplan (guitar, vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums, vocals). Naming themselves after a baseball anecdote, Kaplan and Hubley took out ads in the paper to find people to play with, expressing a love for bands like Mission of Burma and Love. Guitarist Dave Schramm and bassist Dave Rick rounded out the band for its debut 7”, ‘85’s The River of Water, which includes a cover of Love’s “A House Is Not A Motel” on the B-side. Rick left soon after and the band added Mike Lewis on bass.
The following year Yo La Tengo debuted its debut full-length, the rootsy, power-pop influenced Ride The Tiger. Produced by Mission of Burma’s Clint Conley, the record has several good songs but hardly hints at what the band would become. Both Schramm and Lewis left after the record was recorded and the core duo added Stephan Wichnewski as the new bassist. ‘87’s New Wave Hot Dogs was a much more assured record than the debut, boasting a more muscular sound and focusing on Kaplan’s guitar work. But it was ‘89’s President Yo La Tengo that started to get the band noticed in the press with critics like Robert Christgau praising the album. Still, despite the growing acclaim the album sold poorly and Wichnewski soon left.
In 1990 the band reunited with Dave Schramm to record the folksy Fakebook, released on City Slang in Europe and Bar/None in the States. The record’s gentle sound was a departure for the band and included covers of songs by The Kinks, Daniel Johnston and Cat Stevens, among others, as well as five original songs. The following year saw the release of two singles, one a collaboration with Daniel Johnston, and an EP titled That Is Yo La Tengo. ’91 is also the year that bassist James McNew joined the band. This trio lineup continues to this day.
1992’s May I Sing With Me is arguably the start of prime era Yo La Tengo. Featuring all three members and boasting the best songs the group had written to date, the album quickly got the attention of Matador Records. It’s easy to hear why with tracks like “Five-Cornered Drone (Crispy Duck),” “Always Something” and the noise epic “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss.” This album is a beautiful merger of melodic pop and undulating feedback and hints at the heights the band would soon scale.
Immediately after signing with Matador the band released one of its best records and certainly its best at the time. 1993’s Painful still sounds incredibly good. It’s a record full of ideas, made by a band obviously hitting its stride. Kaplan has stated that he feels like Yo La Tengo really starts with this album. The songs alternate between lush pop ballads recalling the hazy swing of the Velvet Underground’s third album and searing, feedback-drenched guitar workouts in the vein of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth. The trio’s songwriting improved by leaps and bounds here, as evidenced by tracks like “Big Day Coming,” “Nowhere Near” and the stunning “From A Motel 6.” Painful vaulted Yo La Tengo into new terrain and gained the band a larger audience.
Expanding on this formula, the group released Electr-O-Pura in ’95. Again released on Matador and produced by Roger Moutenot, responsible for every Yo La Tengo album since Painful, the record is an out and out classic and one of the best underground rock records of the ‘90s. The record is more erratic and dynamic than its predecessor and the band sounds more confident and animated. The beautiful folk-pop of “The Hour Grows Late” segues into the swirling, Kinks inspired jangle of “Tom Courtenay” and later the band flex a full-on noise groove with “(Straight Down to the) Bitter End.” The album is perhaps best summed up by the beautiful shoegaze of opener “Decora” and the gritty melodic drift of closing track “Blue Line Swinger.” With Electr-O-Pura Yo La Tengo was operating at the height of its power.
Perhaps the most beloved of the band’s albums is ‘97’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. Released after a collection of B-sides, rare singles and unreleased songs called Genius + Love Equals Yo La Tengo, the sprawling new albums is a perfect synthesis of the band’s various styles; songs run the gamut from smoldering punk, extended noise jams, textural dream-pop, folk ballads and shimmering electronics. Standout tracks include the full-throttle noise-pop of “Sugarcube” and the lilting electro-funk of “Autumn Sweater.” It received the warmest reception of any of the group’s records to date and the band toured constantly to back up this newfound success.
By ’99 the band was in the studio again to record its ninth full-length. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out was released early in 2000. The record finds Yo La Tengo refining its eclectic style blending as well as writing some of its best ever songs. Tracks like “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” “The Crying Of Lot G” and “Tears Are In Your Eyes” find the band in a mellow mood and feature gentle arrangements, a focus on electronic textures and dreamy vocal harmonies. Overall not as hectic as some of the band’s previous albums, And Then Nothing… sees Yo La Tengo expanding its sonic palette further while returning to its mellow songwriting roots.
2001 and 2002 brought two interesting releases. The first, titled The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, finds the band writing instrumental ambient music for eight short documentaries about the ocean by Jean Painleve. The second is an EP comprised of different takes on avant-jazz legend Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War.” The record focuses on Yo La Tengo’s noise jam angle and features players from downtown New York City’s jazz scene like Daniel Carter, Sabir Mateen and Susie Ibarra.
In 2003 the band released its tenth full-length with Summer Sun. The songs feature some excellent arrangement work and again bring in New York jazz players like William Parker and Roy Campbell, Jr. The overall feel is similar to And Then Nothing… yet more settled and calm, focusing on quiet atmospheres and beautiful songwriting.
Yo La Tengo would take three years to release another record, but ‘06’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass is a fine return to form. Eschewing the polite pop of Summer Sun for a return to the eclecticism of its ‘90s classics, this record also boasts a fair share of ecstatic guitar noise. The opener’s ten minutes of feedback-laden groove says it all. The album moves through dense textural ambience, minimal garage rock, slow folk songs and full-throttle psych jams but ends up sounding distinctly like Yo La Tengo.
2008 brought a collection of soundtrack work the band has done for various movies called They Shoot, We Score. The following year the group took the name Condo Fucks and recorded Fuckbook, an album of covers. A few months later the band released its twelfth album, Popular Songs.