Yo La Tengo's modest guide to living the good life.
Rock marriages on record have tended to produce some great music but ultimately flame out: Fleetwood Mac, Delaney and Bonnie, Richard and Linda Thompson. Even what was once rock's model for marital bliss, John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy, was reduced to tragic nostalgia by an assassin's bullet.
But perhaps the oddest by-product of the cultural shift inspired by punk is that the alternative scenes it made possible have proven especially conducive to these kinds of life/art partnerships --perhaps because of an inherent modesty that values art over fame and an ethical underpinning that values comfort over extravagance. Sonic Youth, with marrieds-for-life Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon joining bandmates Steve Shelley and Lee Ranaldo, are often seen as the model for this dynamic. Less visible, but perhaps more instructive, is Yo La Tengo, where the couple Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan make music with the staunch support of longtime bandmate James McNew.
Like Sonic Youth and perhaps like no other band of their era, Yo La Tengo gives the impression that they can do this forever. Put Yo La Tengo's 1997 apotheosis I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One next to Sonic Youth's 1998 tour de force A Thousand Leaves and you hear the exact same thing: contentment extending to infinity.
Yo La Tengo can certainly be noisy, but their soundscapes rarely match the guitar-centric aggression of Sonic Youth. Exceptions, like And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out's blissed-out "Cherry Chapstick," are more pastoral than full-throttle. Instead, Yo La Tengo's interest in pure sound manifests itself in warm organ rave-ups and gentle guitar skronk.
Another connection is that both bands broadcast their cultural interests as inseparable from their lives. But here too the differences are instructive. Moore and Gordon are very East Village, radical theory, and exploitation movies. The more middle-class Kaplan and Hubley ("We watch too much TV to be bohemians," Hubley once protested to Village Voice critic Robert Christgau) are happy in Hoboken: They're stay-at-homes who seem like they'd rather curl up with some Pauline Kael and maybe some Latin jazz.
That Yo La Tengo attracts fans attracted to this lifestyle is no accident and no shame. That's the way pop music works: People tend to respond to music that reflects who they are or want to be. So Yo La Tengo may not make great rock-and-roll for people who use the word "party" as a verb. But they do make great rock-and-roll for folks whose idea of a perfect Saturday night is take-out curry and Hitchcock in the VCR.
This kind of artist-fan connection over lifestyle seems to run deeper with Yo La Tengo than any other band I can think of, and the reason is that the band seems to be making a case for their life choices. There is romance in this very modest embrace of culture and companionship, and this band has made a career of making music out of it.
Yo La Tengo dates back to the '80s post-punk scene, but the band hit its stride alongside the indie explosion of the early '90s, especially with 1993's Painful. The following albums, 1995's Electr-o-Pura and the aforementioned I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, are the band's best, especially musically. A nominal guitar band, Yo La Tengo has always hid the instruments in a playful mix of bass, organ, diverse percussion, and other sounds whose gentle communicativeness mirrors the tone of Kaplan and Hubley's often murmured sing-speak vocals. Electr-o-Pura and I Can Hear the Heart are sweeping but still understated musical testaments that speak for Kaplan and Hubley's life-partnership more than about it.
The band's doting on beloved cultural talismans has been a constant, with classic-rock references ("Big Day Coming" and "Our Way To Fall" both find romance in playing favorite music together, the Stones and the Who, respectively), borrowed titles ("From a Motel 6" riffs on Dylan's Highway 61 Revisited only to find Kaplan and Hubley falling asleep to The Howling II on late-night cable, while "We're an American Band" name-checks the Flamin' Groovies instead of Grand Funk Railroad), and film-buff nods ("Deeper Into Movies," from a Kael book, and "Tom Courtenay," a tribute to connoisseurship itself that leads with an exultant shout of "Julie Christie!").
On Electr-o-Pura and I Can Hear the Heart, these references floated freely through an expansive musical haze in which Kaplan and Hubley's marriage was only an occasional subject. The romance was still there: Electr-o-Pura's "My Heart's Reflection" might be the sexiest introverts' mating call ever conceived, Kaplan pleading "I want just us two/I don't want to have to hide my heart" over the prettiest guitar scrapes and squeals you'll ever hear. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One makes the message explicit with bookend cuts --"Moby Octopad" ("Locked in a kiss/Outsiders cease to exist") and Hubley's cover of "My Little Corner of the World" --and then nails it in the middle with perhaps the band's finest moment, "Autumn Sweater."
But lately the relationship has become a central theme. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) reminisces on Kaplan and Hubley's courtship with impossible sweetness but not sentimentality. "Our Way To Fall" looks back through a lovely latticework of brushed percussion and almost churchy organ tones to a first shy meeting ("I remember before we met/I remember sitting next to you/I remember pretending I wasn't looking"). "Last Days of Disco" pushes the relationship forward to a house party, Hubley urging a reluctant Kaplan out onto the dance floor: "And the song said, 'Let's be happy'/And I was happy/It never made me happy before."
Summer Sun (2003) forwards it to the present-day and a new way into the relationship, the pair alone yet together: On Hubley's "Little Eyes," she's an insomniac waiting for Ira to awaken, wishing she could share her nighttime thoughts with him. Kaplan's "Nothing But You and Me" urges Georgia to wake up so they can make up. And on the heart-stopper "Don't Have To Be So Sad," Ira puts his bedtime reading down to watch his wife sleep, offering an atheist's prayer that she know how much he loves her.
And Then Nothing Turns Itself Inside-Out contains a song called "You Can Have It All." Kaplan (or is it McNew?) sings nonsense syllables --"ba-ba-ba-ba-ba." Hubley sings barely audible verses leading into a swooning recitation of the title phrase. It's a hymn of reassurance but also an affirmation, a promise, to each other and to their listeners: You can have it all, depending on what your definition of "all" is. n