Monday, January 24, 2011

Thoughts of an Aspiring Music Snob: Week 91 - Yo La Tengo

Chris is trying to compensate for his lack of musical knowledge by immersing himself in one new artist each week. At the end of the week, he will write up a brief summary of his opinions. You can read about the origin and parameters of this project here.

One of my favorite activites is the late-night walk, and I happened to take one last Tuesday. Before leaving my apartment, I cued up And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out on my iPod, and then set off into the damp Floridian winter night. 

It was one of those beautiful nights where my mood just happened to match the meteorological conditions - a rainstorm had just passed, the moon was nearly full, and the entire city was obscured in a cloud of gray fog. As I walked under hazy streetlights and dim stars, I was blown away with how well the album matched this weather. The blurred drones of noise lying underneath pitch-perfect harmonies, the soft vocals and chiming guitars, the restrained beauty of the music, it all seemed to function as the aural equivalent of the peculiar beauty of a suburban neighborhood at midnight. 

I kept walking for a long time as the album continued, the perfect counterpoint to my aimless nocturnal wanderings. The fog, the the quiet night, and Yo La Tengo just all happened to coincide in one of those perfect experiences where every sensual aspect compliments the whole. I went to bed feeling calm and satisfied, like all was right with the world.

In a way, it's almost narcissistic for me to dwell on this intensely personal experience when discussing music in a public forum like this one. I doubt that you, the reader, have ever listened to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out while strolling through a fog-laden January night in Florida. But, at the same time, it would be insincere for me to discuss the music without mentioning this. There's no use for me to pretend to be objective - it was an amazingly evocative experience, and one that I'm going to recall each subsequent time I listen to the album. 

Music acts as the background to our lives, and every tune and harmony helps memories like this one resurface - our experience shapes how we listen to the music as much as music can sharpen an experience. It's not quite an easy thing to describe (I know I'm not doing justice to my first listen to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out), but perhaps one of the delights of music is its ability to affect us and be affected by us in such a way.



WHAT I KNEW BEFORE: Pretty much nothing. I had a vague idea that the group was responsible for mellow indie rock, but I don't think I had heard any of their music going into this week.

MY LISTENING: I listened to I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997) every day this week. I also listened to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) three times, Painful (1993) twice, and Electr-O-Pura (1995) and I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (2006) once each.

WHAT I LIKED: For the most part, I preferred the Yo La Tengo songs that were quiet, melodic, and subdued over the songs that were louder and filled with drones and feedback. The band is very adept at setting a mood using a minimal amount of pieces, and they're precise enough in their performance that they don't need to raise the volume; I like how many simple pieces can come together to create a deep and layered texture. I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out were the best albums for this sort of music. "One PM Again" is a good example - a very simple song in the middle of the album that was nonetheless memorable to me.

Yo La Tengo's songs tended to stay in my mind even though the band doesn't go out of its way to record tracks that could be considered iconic or striking. There's no showpieces on their albums, but as longer sonic pieces, they're beautiful. One of my favorite sets of songs came from early on I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, as the demure "Shadows" transitions to the bright but melancholy "Stockholm Syndrome," followed by "Autumn Sweater," a song that sounds beautiful mostly because of the tentative, quiet vocal lines.

The band manages some beautiful contradictions because of their restraint and sonic moderation; songs like "Big Day Coming" sound orchestral in scope only in comparison to the rest of Yo La Tengo's output, but it's impressive that the band can evoke so much with so little. The song feels incredibly open, and the wide-open spaces between each note somehow makes the music seem larger in size and ambition. And "Our Way to Fall" demonstrates the band's ability to craft a single note with all sorts of meaning - listen to the vibraphones that are used ever-so-sparingly.

WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: The other side of Yo La Tengo is, of course, their more rock-oriented drones and reverb. What's unfortunate is that these songs have the tendency to be longer jams. I wouldn't mind them so much if there weren't so many; instead of a song every album, these meandering explorations into fairly boring sounds constitute close to half the band's repertoire.

As a result, I start to check out of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One by the time I get sixteen minutes of "Spec Bebop" and "We're An American Band," or the nine-minute closer "Blue Line Swinger" on Electr-O-Pura.

Finally, much like Muse last week, all of Yo La Tengo's music started to blur together to me before the end of this week. For a band that's been around for over twenty-five years, they seem to be running in circles. This is only a problem when I come in with my ambitious "band a week" schedule, but the early four albums I listened to all appeared to be variations on the same aesthetic. This is forgivable only because each iteration was slightly better than the last, and 2006's I Am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass sounds different enough for me to be willing to admit there's a sizable amount of the band's output I haven't listened to yet. Which leads me to...

FURTHER EXPLORATION WOULD ENTAIL: As I said, Yo La Tengo has been around for twenty-five years, with all the studio albums, live bootlegs, soundtracks and pet projects that such longevity entails. But the most acclaimed that I haven't gotten to seem to be Fakebook (1990), Summer Sun (2003) and Popular Songs (2009). The last two are especially appealing, because I Am Not Afraid Of You and I Will Beat Your Ass gives me hope that the band isn't just treading water, though my cursory listen of that album gives me only the briefest of introductions to the last decade of the band's music.

BEST SONG YOU'VE HEARD: "Autumn Sweater," I suppose?

For a band with a relatively large amount of critical acclaim, there isn't really one song that the critics flock to with which to describe the "essence" of Yo La Tengo. This is not a bad thing.


This is the haunting track I started my midnight walk with.