Yo La Tengo – Stuff Like That There (Matador)

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Yo La Tengo, the US’s and Hoboken New Jersey’s premier indie rock band (especially since the demise of Sonic Youth) are back with a 30th anniversary album, and they’ve re-joined forces with their original lead guitarist Dave Schramm who was with them on their first album in 1986. They’ve also announced an extensive US and European tour, which Schramm will presumably join them for, and Ira Kaplan has moved to acoustic guitar for this album, a return to the concept of their 1990 album Fakebook, on which they did mostly acoustic covers, including a few of their own earlier songs, and were joined again by Schramm. In case anybody doesn’t know by now, their name comes from the New York Mets baseball team in 1962 who had a Venezuelan outfielder who didn’t speak English, and in order to avoid collisions, his Anglo co-outfielder would yell ‘Yo La Tengo!’ (I’ve got it!) when the ball came near him. This led to him colliding with another Anglo outfielder, who said indignantly, ‘what the hell does ‘yellow tango’ mean?’

YLT have certainly got it, as they showed when they last visited these shores in March 2014 on the back of their last album, 2013’s Fade, plus lots of other songs, which they performed in two parts, one Quiet and the other Loud. I was overseas at the time, but apparently the Opera House audience found the loud part a bit too loud, and when Kaplan handed his feedbacking guitar to a front row audience member they didn’t know what to do with it. The Opera House is not the best venue for this band, obviously, and I’ve previously seen them in various indie dives where they fit much better (eg the Metro a few years back, where Dunedin singer songwriter David Kilgour joined them with his band the heavy Eights. They’ve always had a strong affinity with the Flying Nun bands, and contributed to Chris Knox’s 2009 tribute album Stroke).

On this album they start with drummer Georgia Hubley on vocals in a sweet, twanging, version of country artist Darlene McCrea’s ‘My Heart’s Not in It’, about a young woman trying to date after a breakup. This sets the predominantly quiet, relaxed tone of the album, with Schramm adding tasty, subdued licks on lead, and without Kaplan’s usual pyrotechnics. ‘Rickety’ is not a cover, but Hubley and Kaplan share vocals and Schramm contributes some gorgeous guitar on a predominantly laid back track. Georgia is on song again with Hank Williams’ ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’, which doesn’t quite rise to the heights of the Cowboy Junkies’ version on their first album The Trinity Sessions, but comes close. The next track is a cover of ‘All Your Secrets’, from the 2009 YLT album Popular Songs, with Georgia and Ira singing in lustrous harmony, and a lovely lead break from Schramm, followed by ‘The Ballad of Red Buckets’, from a much earlier album, Electr-O-Pura, from 1995, the first album where all songs were credited to the current trio, and when bassist James McNew became a permanent member, their fifteenth bass player.

Schramm starts things off with a lovely solo, with some subdued feedback, and Georgia and Ira sing in harmony again, and it’s another low key, down tempo number. An acoustic cover of the Cure’s ‘Friday I’m in Love’ follows, with Georgia wearing lead vocals like a warm woolly jumper, and then ‘Before We Stopped to Think’ by Great Plains, a band I’ve not heard of, but apparently a country-pop band from Nashville, formed in 1987, is done with a soft vocal from Ira. Georgia takes the The Lovin’ Spoonful’s ‘Butchie’s Tune’, another mellifluous country number, and the couple share vocals on ‘Automatic Doom’, a cover of a song by Special Pillow, apparently ‘jangly psych poppers’, a 1990s Hoboken band that featured James McNew, while ‘Awhileaway’, the album’s second non-cover, combines soft vocals from Ira with bending Schramm guitar.

‘I Can Feel the Ice Melting’ is by the Parliaments, the New Jersey doo-wop predecessor to the more famous funkers Parliament, more up-tempo, with Ira and Georgia sharing vocals, and ‘Naples’, by Antietam, is an acoustic version by Georgia with some spare electric guitar. ‘Deeper Into Movies’, a title lifted from a book by noted US film critic Pauline Kael, is from YLT’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, with shared vocals, about getting messages from outer space, and evocative electric lead, and the final track is ‘Somebody’s in Love’, by The Cosmic Rays with Sun Ra and Arkestra, given a very country inflection with strong overtones of early 1960s pop. McNew plays upright bass throughout and Hubley is on a downscaled drum kit, so it’s a very stripped-down, country styled record, but so relaxed, mature and comfortable that it’s an absolute delight throughout. And I hope it’s not too long before they bring it to our shores.

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Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.

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