A Beginner's Guide to Yo La Tengo | Music Feature | Indy Week
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A Beginner's Guide to Yo La Tengo 

Yo La Tengo just keeps getting better and better. The venerable New Jersey indie trio's fifteenth full-length album, There's A Riot Going On, is an expansive collection comprising delicate mood pieces, ambient electronic moments, and vibrant rhythmic excursions. Although these songs certainly echo previous eras of Yo La Tengo, the album emerges as distinctive within their oeuvre.

To promote There's A Riot Going On, the band is also doing something different on tour: in certain cities, including Carrboro, they're setting up shop for two nights and performing two concerts. This structure opens up the possibility for catalog deep dives, something of which Yo La Tengo is extraordinarily fond.

To get up to speed, here's a fifteen-song guide to the band's essentials songs, as well as underrated tracks and hidden gems.


THE ESSENTIALS

"Barnaby, Hardly Working"
President Yo La Tengo, 1989

Co-written by guitarist/vocalist Ira Kaplan and percussionist/vocalist Georgia Hubley, "Barnaby, Hardly Working" is the first great Yo La Tengo song. The band's well-documented Velvet Underground influence is prominent here—most notably in Kaplan's wry murmurs and needling guitar precision, and Hubley's strolling beats. However, a siren-like loop of scratchy noise lurks beneath it all, like a jagged sonic scar dissecting the nonchalance.


"From A Motel 6"
Painful, 1993

Long, monotonous road trips offer plenty of opportunities to magnify interpersonal weirdness and tension. That's the implication of "From A Motel 6," which intersperses flashbulb memories of bad hotel room TV with references to romantic frustrations and hesitation. Disaffected noise bursts ebb and flow throughout like oceanic tides, adding rough contrast to the song's breathy vocals.


"Tom Courtenay"
Electr-O-Pura, 1995

Despite its lack of defined chorus hook, "Tom Courtenay" is perhaps Yo La Tengo's poppiest moment. Chalk that up to the song's crisp production. Each individual part—Kaplan's keening voice, a cushion of distortion that resembles a bed of pine needles, bah-bah-bah background vocals—is amplified within the mix. The song's video also received plenty of love from MTV's 120 Minutes back in the day, raising the band's profile considerably.


"Autumn Sweater"
I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, 1997

"Autumn Sweater" is as cozy and comforting as Yo La Tengo gets, thanks to its percolating percussion and undulating organ. Lyrically, things are a different story, as the narrator fixates on the article of clothing to calm frayed nerves.


"Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"
I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, 2006

Sprawling songs tend to work best when they pair wild-hair improvisation with a sturdy foundation—and this epic boasts both in spades. Clocking in at nearly eleven minutes, the first track from the band's eleventh full-length is a magnificent display of scorching guitars, hypnotic krautrock pulses and the occasional distorted vocal interlude.


THE UNDERRATED

"Out The Window"
May I Sing With Me,1992

With its throttling guitars and gritty vocals—fronted by Kaplan, with Hubley adding urgent harmonies—"Out The Window" nods to L.A. twang-punks X. Accordingly, the song's lyrics are cathartic, as a protagonist rocked by a crumbling relationship decides to take charge of their life and channel anger into action.


"The Hour Grows Late"
Electr-O-Pura, 1995

Call this an elegy for a musician—or at least a musician's pride. "The Hour Grows Late" describes an artist gearing up to play a gig in front of a sparse crowd. Accordingly, the music is also austere and solemn: funereal organ, a hushed cymbal crash, and mournful, clean guitars create a slow, sad atmosphere.


"Let's Save Tony Orlando's House"
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, 2000

Yo La Tengo's subtle humor is often overlooked. Case in point: "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" is a Simpsons reference, and the song itself imagines "a jealous Frankie Valli" burning down the titular entertainer's Lake Tahoe house. This absurdity unfolds in a completely deadpan manner, bolstered by Hubley's earnest vocals and a jaunty organ.


"Don't Have To Be So Sad"
Summer Sun, 2003

In general, the meditative Summer Sun is an underrated corner of Yo La Tengo's catalog. That's due to moments such as "Don't Have To Be So Sad," an aching rumination on love and the passage of time. Rippling piano, whirring rhythms and subtle bass shading from jazz icon William Parker give the song a moody, gorgeous foundation.


"Rickety"
Stuff Like That There, 2015

One of two original songs on Stuff Like That There, the introspective "Rickety" is a lovely indie-pop ode to a relationship's vicissitudes. Kaplan and Hubley often sing together in a conspiratorial tone, an approach that works especially on the song's kicker: "Through it all, we're on our feet, but rickety."


THE HIDDEN GEMS

"Big Sky"
Ride the Tiger, 1986

On its earliest records, Yo La Tengo wore its influences on its sleeve. That's not necessarily a bad thing in the case of "Big Sky," a defiantly retro gem combining Velvet Underground-esque speak-sing vocals and the kind of burnished guitar jangle favored by sixties psych-rock bands.


"Nowhere Near"
Painful, 1993

Loneliness—in the form of both physical distance and someone pining for love that may or may not be within reach—permeates the cinematic "Nowhere Near." The song, which Hubley composed and sings, is gentle desert twang buoyed by velvet-lined keyboards and evocative guitars.


"Daphnia"
I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, 2006

"Daphnia" sounds like the first spin of a dusty vinyl record unearthed at a garage sale. It's another epic sprawl, this time centered around prominent ghostly piano and an underbelly speckled with sounds—including guitar drone, as well as pops and hisses that recall a crackling campfire.


"If It's True"
Popular Songs, 2009

The sixties homage "If It's True" combines spongy soul organ, ebullient strings and a Motown strut, as well as a carefree attitude toward life and love. That best comes through with the lyric, "Let's make jam when life gives us a peach."


"Paddle Forward"
Fade, 2013

The compact "Paddle Forward" is a glorious throwback to Yo La Tengo's freewheeling fuzz-pop days. Distortion smoke rings curl around corrugated guitars, whose own grimy chime matches Kaplan and Hubley's laissez-faire, noise-obscured vocals.

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