Yo La Tengo: Your Favourite Band's Favourite Band

They are hailed as indie darlings the world over, and their new album only solidifies this status...
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They are hailed as indie darlings the world over, and their new album only solidifies this status...


Indie music has gotten a terrible reputation as of late. What with the mid-Noughties deluge of buzz-bands and homogenised guitar nancys that's kind of understandable, but those who write off the genre could be remiss: that which has taken the name of "indie" is not. That's pop. Not that there is anything wrong with pop as a genre or liking of that, but its mislablement as "indie" simply because it has drumming and a guitar is simplistic and plain wrong.

Yo La Tengo, indie veterans of nigh-on thirty years, would know this more than most. While many bands of their ilk blew up (REM), broke up (The Smiths) or simply faded away (almost everyone else) they continued on making music - great music - with the release of thirteen albums since their seminal 1986 debut "Ride the Tiger". Of that number you'd expect a few duffers in the mix but their output has been remarkably consistent, peaking with 1997's masterclass "I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One" - regularly rated as one of the greatest albums of the nineties.

Originally a husband-and-wife duo –  with ever-present members Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley the band's conjugal contingent – formed in 1984, they went on to gain and lose a few bassists along the way, before settling on James McNew in 1992 for the mildly received “May I Sing With Me”, a year before settling at independent behemoth Matador Records, where they have remained for twenty years.

The uninitiated are urged to delve into the chasmous back-catalogue: if you're after a new favourite band when your old faithfuls have let you down, you may have just found it. With a discography boasting a litany of cover tracks from artists as iconic as Lou Reed and Ray Davies, mainstream mainstays like Queen and The Who to their own interpretations of (relatively) little known gems by cult faves like the divisive Beat Happening or Merseybeat lost-boys The Escorts.

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Unafraid of infusing different genres into their sound while never losing sight of the spectrum which originally won them a small, devoted following of fans and music writers, the band have been continually praised for their honest songwriting and beautiful compositions; deceptively simple but with a subtlety of influence too rarely showcased by modern bands.

On their latest album "Fade" - the first produced by John McEntire of The Sea and Cake "fame" - the trend continues as the almost symphonic atmosphere beneath the guitars and drum-beats lends an air of contemplation: a middle-aged band unafraid to sing about the middle-ages in an honest, sincere manner.

On spatial opener “Ohm”, Kaplan sings “Nothing ever stays the same/ Nothing is explained". With time – especially the passing of which – a reoccurring theme ironic for a band no stranger to song durations that push double-digits. But an inaccessible art band Yo La Tengo are not, exemplified by radio-ready “Well You Ready” with its simple guitar riff and organ melody, it resembles the quieter side of The Strokes' early work, too often forgotten amid their stadium tours and leather-jacket swagger; the plaintive lyrics call a love to arms (“Baby make up your mind/Before it's too late”) but are delivered with an off-hand tone, not dissimilar to the indie-pop bands on Sarah Records championed by one John Peel: a genre noted for a DIY attitude and a aural juxtaposition of a simple, sweet voice talking about sad things.

“Cornelia and Jane” is a long, slow drive with a percussive guitar riff playing off of Hubley's gentle voice – given a rare lead – as it wavers on the precipice of breaking. Album highpoint “Stupid Things” is a five-minute jam reminiscent of their early output: a driving beat, an echoed voice seamlessly blending with layered instrumentation. Fitting that the standout track of their latest album – championed as their “comeback” by some, after a four-year absence – is one most reminicent of the early stuff.

Not quite as cohesive as the sprawling classic “I Can Hear The Hear Beating as One” (what is?) but far tighter than their last album, 2009's often languid “Popular Songs”, and a surefire contender for album of the year: this is stirring, intelligent stuff with bags of identity and heart.

Fade is out 14/01 on Matador Records