Since they've always been around, and since they've never released anything that actively irritated me, I've taken Yo La Tengo for granted for as long as I can remember, which is odd, because they make the kind of music I like (understated vocals, fuzzy guitars, loping rhythms).
The problem for me is two-fold: 1) I worked in radio and music retail for 20+ years altogether, and I heard them often enough that they became a form of aural wallpaper, and 2) They never released anything that actively irritated me...unlike Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., and some of their other guitar-rock peers. I like most everything they've ever done, but irritation can give way to adoration when an act is taking chances that call on a listener's time and patience to process.
These reservations, which I attribute more to myself than the band, have been melting away in recent weeks. First came their performance last month at Easy Street's final in-store. My friend and I arrived early enough to find a relatively comfortable spot, which allowed us to hear the trio just fine—I'll miss the acoustics in that space—but I could only see bass player James McNew (I couldn't even see store manager Matt Vaughan, who introduced the group).
A few days before the show
They opened with a boisterous version of "The Last Time," and that set the tone for the night. I've always loved the Stones' version of that gospel standard (titled "This May Be the Last Time" when the Staple Singers recorded it in 1955), which gave them one of their earliest #1 hits, but the chorus really hit home, since that was the last time I ever set foot in Easy Street's Queen Anne location. And the set to come, which consisted primarily of original material, transcended it.
Live, they sounded more like Can than I expected. This isn't a new development, but working with Tortoise's John McEntire has helped to bring their Krautrock side to the fore. Ira Kaplan's Dylanesque voice may not recall Can's Damo Suzuki or Malcolm Mooney—let alone Holger Czukay and Michael Karoli—but McNew and drummer Georgia Hubley had that motorik groove down to a science.
And then I finally listened to their 13th studio recording at the same time everyone was working themselves into a frenzy over the monumentally-delayed My Bloody Valentine LP (it wasn't intentional, but the groups offer a potent study in contrasts). And I've been enjoying it. To my mind, their entire career has been a series of improvisations on the Velvet Underground's third, which doesn't mean they don't have their own unique identity, but that it all flows from the more tender side of a famously intense outfit, and they excel equally well on the rave-ups, which build slowly, and the ballads, which never get too sticky-sweet, like Fade's "I'll Be Around" in which Kaplan promises to remain steadfast over a gently finger-picked, Nick Drake-like guitar line (and Hubley's singing has always reminded me of VU drummer Moe Tucker, especially on "Cornelia and Jane").
After countless spins, I'm convinced it's one of their best records, though I'm still not taken by the orchestral country number "Is That Enough." Granted, only so many alt-rock acts have gone down that road, but it doesn't quite work for me.
Thanks to Mark Deming for reminding me about this remix.
If they aren't taking any significant risks on the new album, enough time has passed that I've come to appreciate the way they keep refining—rather than reinventing—their formula. And the quality control remains shockingly high, considering how long they've been together and how prolific they've been. Minimal line-up changes aside—McNew joined in 1992—they've outlasted most every band that emerged in the 1980s without every selling out or hitting the oldies circuit.
I never ignored Yo La Tengo. They were always there—since 1984, which means they're closing in on 30 years—but I'm sorry I didn't pay more attention. They won't always be around, but history will remember them with fondness. And if Fade was the only thing they left behind: I would say the same exact thing.
Fade is out now on Matador. For tour dates, click here (Seattle isn't listed yet).