Popular Songs (Yo La Tengo, Barrymore Theater, Madison, 1/23/10)

My car has a cassette deck but no CD player, so unless I plug the iPod adapter into the cigarette lighter, it’s college mix tapes all the way. Little time capsules that transport me back to the 1990s faster than clove cigarettes or sandalwood oil. They’re full of the usual suspects: Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Pixies. Some stuff seemed crucial at the time but, as it turns out, wasn’t⎯when was the last time you spun Letters to Cleo or Possum Dixon? And sneaking onto the last few tapes before I switched to mix CDs are Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo.

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I definitely wasn’t cool enough to discover these bands on my own, having only very recently emerged from the James Taylor/Simon & Garfunkel/Cat Stevens folk wilderness. A friend came back from studying abroad in London with a taste for shoegaze and noise-rock⎯I think that’s where the Sonic Youth came from. And one incredibly persuasive magazine review sold me on May I Sing With Me, YLT’s 1992 album, before I heard a note. By the album’s second song, “Upside Down,” I was in love. The boy-girl vocals! The cool lady drummer! The total kinesis!

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Although the band is a perfectly balanced trio, with each member singing and playing multiple instruments, it’s Georgia I always notice first. Even when hammering the hell out of her kit, she exudes an otherworldly, beatific calm. Just check out this performance of “Nothing To Hide,” from the latest album, Popular Songs.

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Popular Songs itself plays out like a terrific mixtape, which the album art evokes. Styles shift from track to track: “Here To Fall,” like Prince’s “When Doves Cry” on Purple Rain, wrings momentous tension from the guitar god gone guitarless. “Avalon Or Someone Very Similar” weds Byrds-y jangle with AM radio vocals. “Periodically Double or Triple” lays down a Farfisa organ groove punctuated by (yes!) cowbell breaks. “If It’s True” cops the Motown bassline from The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself.” “I’m On My Way” is a rippling, pretty waltz. The band seems comfortable with nearly every period and genre, knowing it ultimately sounds most like itself. At times it even seems they’re riffing on themselves, with glances toward the chord changes and harmonies from earlier tracks like “Sugarcube” and “Cherry Chapstick.”

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If you’d told the 20 year-old me that I’d spend a Saturday night in 2010 walking over to the neighborhood venue to see Yo La Tengo, still together and still kicking ass, for the nth time, I’d have been surprised⎯and impressed. When I was crafting those mid-90s mixes, it was impossible even to imagine the 2010 version of me, never mind what I’d be listening to.

Such thoughts have been happening with increasing frequency lately⎯maybe it’s a time-of-life thing, a taking-stock reflex that occurs when you’ve been out of high school for twenty years and it suddenly hits you that whatever you thought the milestones off in the distance were that marked adulthood, by default you’re there. But while I was watching last week’s show at the Barrymore, I was feeling at peace, grateful that Yo La Tengo, apparently ageless and incapable of playing a bad song, continue to unleash discs of indescribable beauty every few years.

(A selection from the Madison show: “I’m On My Way.”)
[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0sJMiqR4T1Q[/youtube]

Most amazing moment: during the second encore, Ira admired an audience member’s Beatles sweatshirt and offered to play any Beatles cover she chose. (YLT’s skill with impromptu covers is legendary; they play an annual “stump the band” benefit for NYC-area independent radio station WFMU, and have even released a covers album, Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics, not to mention a terrific garage-rock covers album under the name Condo Fucks.) Anyway, the Beatles! The possibilities unfurled in my mind: would it be cooler to hear them bash out “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or attempt “A Day in the Life”? “Hello Goodbye” or “I Am the Walrus”? No matter what, the result was sure to be one of those I-was-there shows.

The fan picked Moby Octopad, a track from the band’s own 1997 release I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. And a whoop went up from the crowd⎯no complaints, not one.

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That, my friends, is love. Here’s to twenty-five years and a body of work that stands up to anything in popular music. When we start jacking memory sticks straight into our brains⎯or whatever music-delivery tech comes after the iPod⎯Yo La Tengo will be there.

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGQmN76FAGc&feature=related[/youtube]

9 responses to “Popular Songs (Yo La Tengo, Barrymore Theater, Madison, 1/23/10)”

  1. Dave says:

    Yay!!!!

    I loved the new album. Their show here in New York was really fun, with a lot of covers I didn’t know and cool live visuals by some troupe of psychedelicists.

    “Here to Fall” is such a pleasant earworm if you give it a chance.

    Genius + love.

  2. Tim says:

    The new record is a monster. Epic.

    Unfortunately, J-Man and I all but missed the show here in LA. Not knowing they were going on at 8:30 (post-show dance club was taking over at 11), we arrived at 10, just in time for the closing noisefest. The encores were awesome, though, including a cover of a punk gem called “(Let’s Get Rid of) New York.” Perhaps the best part was that we were home and in bed by 11:30. So I’m old – sue me.

  3. Dave says:

    They did “Let’s Get Rid of New York” at a legendary show in Prospect Park the summer after 9/11. Amazing.

  4. KS says:

    Cool review! Loved it.

    Tim, I missed them in my hood a couple of Sundays ago because they weren’t starting at 8:30 (the usual time for bands far exceeds my bed time on school nights).

    I spent the better part of the 90s in grad school, supplementing my meager TA stipend with tips from a chi-chi restaurant that happened to be next door to the local live music venue in collegetown USA. Yo La Tengo came to town often and the three of them used to dine at the restaurant before their shows. I waited on them many times and they are the nicest people–so down to earth, so generous, so witty, so humble, and so grateful for fans (and good victuals). I am so happy that they are still making music, and still making us love them.

  5. jeremy says:

    Oh, Rachel, you make me smile… Yo La Tengo is (partly, if not wholly) responsible for my initial bonding with another Whatsiter, Farrell. Ergo, YLT is responsible for my knowing all of (or many of) you wonderful people…

  6. Farrell Fawcett says:

    Rachel, was I perchance the 1992 returning London-study abroad friend you referenced? I can only dream. Although, truth be told, I didn’t own a sonic youth album until 1993. Could it have been the MBV shoe-gazers I turned you on to? Have we really know each other that long? Jesus! And yes, Jeremy is correct, Electropura was the album that I leant to a cool but strange skater grad school classmate 15 years ago and . . . . . . . . . . .. .. . ………….God, bless Yo La Tengo for bringing us all together.

  7. swells says:

    I can hear the heart beating as one!

  8. Rachel says:

    Glad to know that I’m not the only one whop gets a little bit misty when it comes to YLT. My sentimental streak runs wide and deep. It’s also nice to know that the band consists of truly nice people–something that’s shouldn’t really matter when it comes to great art, but often does (at least for me). You can tell a lot about a person from how he/she treats service workers! Take it from someone who paid her way through grad school as a valet/bellman.

    By the way, Ira works the merch table and James chats with fans in the Barrymore foyer. Every time I’ve seen them so far.

    Farrell, I was thinking about my old friend Yvette (like you and Jeremy, we bonded over an album–Throwing Muses’ The Real Ramona). She had the reigning music taste in my 1992 world…we’ve actually known each other longer than that, if you can believe it.

    Long live Yo La Tengo!

  9. Rachel says:

    “We” being you and I, Farrell. Dang this English syntax!