Friday, November 9, 2007

Another Way to Like Yo La Tengo

My experience with the band Yo La Tengo has always been kind of curious. I came around to them way late, not really enjoying them until I was practically out of college. To this day if people asked me about them I would describe myself as, at best, a casual fan. And yet, if you look at the top 25 most played songs on my ipod, 3 of the songs are by Yo La Tengo!

I guess, whether you love them or not, there's a certain kind of mellow vibe they create which, if you're a big music fan, can't really be denied. They're also funny as hell, big sports fans, and have some of the greatest album titles ever, including last year's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, however, remains my favorite record of theirs, with the song Autumn Sweater (mp3) typifying, both as a title and a song, the kind of moments in which their sound just cannot be topped. Walking around in autumn, late at night, there isn't a band in a world that provides a better soundtrack.

Probably my three favorite Yo La Tengo songs (the ones that are on the top 25) are Stockholm Syndrome, Black Flowers, and You Can Have it All. Bizarrely, not one of these songs is sung by Ira Kaplan, the lead singer. Although I love their music itself, I've always much preferred the voice of bass player James McNew and drummer Georgia Hubley. Nothing against Ira, of course, but his voice is usually just a little too deep and set too far back against the music for me to really enjoy.

McNew, in particular, has a soft, sad voice that belies his appearance and always strikes just the right tone for me. It's impossible to listen to Black Flowers (mp3) and not become entranced by his melancholy vocals and story of the "pretty boys with skinny ties" and their "black flowers and valentines" that distract his love and keeps her away from him. Stockholm Syndrome, another McNew song, remains my favorite Yo La Tengo tune. It serves as a reminder that some of the greatest pop lyrics are the simplest, carried to greatness on the strength of their vocal performances.

Your heart is broken, and the doors are open
As you're hoping to be

There's brighter places to see

Hands need warning, early in the morning

Hardly as I've known a surprise

Georgia's voice has a great way of getting a hold of me as well. There's something about the quiet and assured style in which she sings that has a wonderfully casual air. The song My Little Corner of the World is one great example of this, though my favorite of hers remains You Can Have it All, and the way her voice rises out from the fantastic "ba-bum-ba-bum-bah-bah-bah"s. Once again, the lyrics are practically nothing, just a few simple lines where the meaning is supplied by the upbeat and gentle music and by her soft, confident voice. This is the entirety of the song:

If you want, want my love
Take it baby

If you want, want my heart

Take it baby

You can have it all

If you want, want my time

Take it baby

And if you want my last dime

Take it baby
You can have it all

Take it baby, you can have it all

So, if you haven't given Yo La Tengo much a chance yet, it might be time to try again. Just remember that sometimes, even if you only like 3 songs out of 100, those three songs can make all of the digging around worthwhile.

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