Yo La Tengo is one of the all-time great American garage bands, operating out of Hoboken, NJ, for almost 20 years now without running out of ideas. Guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley are a married couple who seem to like each other, quite the rock-world novelty. Together, they do for monogamy what the Velvet Underground did for heroin -- even their screaming feedback drones have the down-home feel of neighbors jamming on the back porch. Ever since bassist James McNew joined in the early '90s, the trio has been one of indie rock's most adventurous and most beloved bands. They experiment constantly, so all their albums have tracks that are too awful to even count as filler; the closest they've come to flawless is Painful. But no Yo La Tengo fan would be interested in flawless. They do folkie ballads, they do noise, they try endless guitar jams, they play around with keyboards and drum loops, they cover any song that pops into their heads, and they were great on The Simpsons.
The first two jangle-rock records sounded good at the time, but the band really made its early reputation with the 28-minute President Yo La Tengo. (The title is an arcane Get Smart reference -- Yo La Tengo has always had trouble with titles, but this is one of their better tries.) "Barnaby, Hardly Working" and "Drug Test" were space-rock drones with a jagged guitar sound, announcing that everybody's favorite cover band had turned into songwriters. Ira sang like Lou Reed's librarian uncle, but he traded stunning harmonies with Hubley on "Alyda." Fakebook was a summer-time set of acoustic tunes, mostly covers, giving Hubley plenty of room to sing like Maureen Tucker's librarian niece. They did oldies by the Kinks, the Flamin' Groovies, NRBQ, and John Cale, although the best song was a new original, "The Summer." The touching cover of Daniel Johnston's "Speeding Motorcycle" became one of Yo La Tengo's most enduring faves.
At first, James McNew seemed like the latest in a long line of temporary bassists, but he was already a formidable talent in his own right, recording solo under the name Dump, and he pushed the band to a new level. You can't really hear him in the dull instrumental murk of May I Sing with Me, but he became an essential part of the sound on Painful, the 1993 album that kept every promise Yo La Tengo ever made and blew their previous highlights away. The premise was New Zealand–style indie rock muscled up with a sharper song sense and a louder bottom, resulting in riffers such as "Sudden Organ" and "From a Motel 6." Even the vocals came on strong. They did "Big Day Coming" twice, first as a lullaby, then as a surging rave-up; Hubley and Kaplan harmonized on a hushed version of the Only Ones' "The Whole of the Law," and the record climaxed with the fantastic seven-minute guitar instrumental "I Heard You Looking."
Even the band's biggest fans were taken aback by Painful. So which one is the best -- Painful, Electr-O-Pura, or I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One? It's a tough call. Painful is the one that doesn't let up for a minute. Electr-O-Pura has the best songwriting. I Can Hear the Heart covers the most stylistic ground. Electr-O-Pura is guitar, guitar, guitar, with tons of propulsive organ and drums and rugged little tunes such as "Tom Courtenay" and "False Alarm." "Blue Line Swinger" is definitely their best song ever, a nine-minute groove that you never want to end, and it feels like it never does, until the final moments when Hubley's vocals lift off into a human feedback loop.
I Can Hear tries a much wider variety of sonic inventions and gets away with most of them, covering all the bases like an indie-rock version of Prince's Sign o' the Times. Kaplan sails away on perfect guitar drones such as "Deeper into Movies" and "We're an American Band" (not the Grand Funk song of the same name). "Moby Octopad" is a mysterious synthed-up psychedelic loop, "Stockholm Syndrome" is acoustic folk rock, "Green Arrow" is a surf instrumental, "Center of Gravity" is mock bossa nova, and "Little Honda" turns a Brian Wilson oldie into a punk-rock celebration. So it looks like a tie between Electr-O-Pura and I Can Hear. Newcomers should start with the latter, as it's the one that practically everybody likes, although the really bad song on I Can Hear ("Spec Bebop") lasts over 10 minutes, while the two really bad songs on Electr-O-Pura are over pretty quick. Your call.
Since then, the band has kept experimenting for its loyal fan base. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out was a drastic step, turning down the volume for a set of low-key and apparently autobiographical musings on married life. It's often beautiful, especially "Our Way to Fall," although the loud guitar of "Cherry Chapstick" makes you hungry for a little more. Summer Sun was a throwaway with one not-bad song, "Season of the Shark." Warning: Ira's rap is on side two. The Sounds of the Sounds of Science is an instrumental film soundtrack, the sort of thing Yo La Tengo do well when they're trying, but not here. Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo, the most awful album title in a career full of them, collects rarities through 1996, such as their version of the Fast Times at Ridgemont High love theme "Somebody's Baby." Inexplicably, it omits their great 1991 cover of the Beach Boys' "Farmer's Daughter," from the "Upside Down" single. More recently, the 2003 "Nuclear War" single is a timely antiwar protest with a kids' choir chanting an old Sun Ra song, while Today Is the Day has "Styles of the Times." Strange but True is an album of the band backing up Half Japanese singer Jad Fair while he reads Weekly World News articles out loud. The strange-but-true aspect of this album is that it's pretty great, especially "Circus Strongman Runs for PTA President." James McNew's solo project Dump has done amazing work for years: try I Can Hear Music, A Plea for Tenderness, his album of Prince covers titled That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice (nice "Pop Life"), or his head-spinning 1995 International Airport. (ROB SHEFFIELD)
From 2004's The New Rolling Stone Album Guide