Georgia, Ira and James.
Not exactly Mick and Keith or JohnPaulGeorgeRingo.
But they are the trio who play in my favorite band, Yo La Tengo. And having just seen them again last week at the Bell House, right here in Da Slope (is there anything better than being able to hear great music in your own neighborhood?), I am reminded this week not just of why I love them so much, but the importance of going with what you feel. I want to pay tribute to my favorite band in the world, and will try to do it without sounding like either a Bieber Head or Robert Christgau.
But knowing what we like is more important than ever. Consider what the internet has done to personal taste. Now we have five star systems for our literature and music. We have an Artist of the Day competition. We have Dancing With the Stars. Opinions are aggregated so that marketing dollars can be put to their best use. The Yelping of the arts.
In the face of all that, well we all need someone we can lean on. I lean on Yo La Tengo.
whatever you want from me
whatever you want I'll do
try to squeeze a drop of blood
from a sugarcube
Even now, fourteen years after I first heard I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One in my West Village apartment, my head exploding to Sugarcube, (ever seen the video with the Mr. Show folks?), blown away by Deeper Into Movies, the whole album like nothing I had even heard before, I am still in awe of what Yo La Tengo does.
The way their songs seem to speed up and slow down all at once. Hopeful whispers floating over dissonant guitars. A suburban Sonic Youth, smart but not knowing. Melodic, angry; tender, raw. Ethereal vocals, shredding guitar solos, thumping rhythms.
try to be more assured
try to be more right there
try to be less uptight
try to be more aware
whatever you want from me
is what I want to do for you
sweeter than a drop of blood
from a sugarcube
Yo La Tengo got their name from the Spanish version of a baseball player saying “I got it” when catching a fly ball. The name fits because, as they say about baseball, every time you see Yo La Tengo you see something you have never seen before. They are always trying something new, always giving you a new version of your favorite song, tirelessly mining the material.
You always know they care deeply about what they do, and despite their years of success approach the music with freshness, energy and curiosity. At Bell House the band was winding down on The Race Is on Again, Ira playing that irresistible melody, and you could just feel it was taking all his self control not to leap into another riff, a new idea, set the place on fire yet again. Small songs about love, what we think about lying in bed late at night, minds raging while the world sleeps.
And that's why
If you're looking at me
To be what you want to see
And if I
If I'm ever that lucky
You won't have to be so
You won't have to be so sad
I was trying to read in bed
I got to watching you sleep instead
Even when I got tired I couldn't stop
Because I love you so
And I pray you know
But I'm not one for praying
You knew I couldn't say that without making a joke
I love that Georgia and Ira have been living and working together for more than 25 years. There have been other married couples in bands but I can’t think of one that works as well musically as Georgia and Ira. Maybe Richard and Linda Thompson but that was more short-lived.
when I heard the knock on the door
I couldn't catch my breath
is it too late to call this off?
we could slip away
wouldn't that be better?
me with nothing to say
and you in your autumn sweater
Georgia’s talents are absolutely crucial to the band. She is a fantastic drummer, powerful and precise. Her lilting vocals give the band its Velvet Underground ambiance. She carries herself with dignity and humility. Yo La Tengo called one of their albums Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo, and though Ira is one of my favorite guitar players ever, there’s no question Georgia completes that equation all by herself.
I love the way the band members exchange places during the show, James on drums, Ira on keyboard, Georgia on theremin, whatever the song calls for. When I hear Ira play keyboard I wonder why he doesn’t do it more. I wonder why Georgia doesn’t sing lead vocals all the time.
I love that the band played its own version of Wheel of Fortune at the Bell House. The wheel was spun to determine the set list for the first half of the show. The winner: Songs with a Proper Name. (great set)
I love that Yo La Tengo is true to its Hoboken roots, that the band that opened for them (Antietam) is a New Jersey band that opened for them on their very first tour in 1985. Yo La Tengo loves to collaborate, and you can tell that when an outside musician steps on stage to play with these guys, it is an honor. And to this day Yo La Tengo sponsors a fundraiser for independent local radio WFMU 91.1; they take requests all night long in exchange for pledges. True to their roots.
I love that Yo La Tengo plays all eight nights of Hanukkah at Maxwellís every year. Eight straight nights of great comedians (Eugene Mirman, David Cross, the woman from Flight of the Conchords, Todd Barry), great opening acts (The National, Magnetic Fields, Alex Chilton), and then a huge, awe-inspiring set they perform for 150 of their closest friends. It is always an incredible night at Maxwell’s, though as Ira likes to say “the best night is always the night you weren’t there.”
Driving in the south, the motor's on fire
Let's put it out, before the flames go higher
Monday matinee, in pull we are life's throb
So hard to choose between conceit and rock
Some college in the spring, the sound is all wrong
Reset the mate to our Flamin Groovies song
Driving, night again, they're late, car crash
We'll turn to look unless we're going too fast
I love that Yo La Tengo is something I can just feel. I don’t know all their lyrics by heart, or even the order of songs on their albums. It doesn’t seem to matter. I just get it.
They ended the Bell House show with Neil Young's For the Turnstiles. NY used to be my guy, and I still love his music. Yo La Tengo loves performing covers, but this one was extraordinary. The anxiety of the original version was replaced with a sense of affection and appreciation.
All the bush league batters
Are left to die
on the diamond.
In the stands
the home crowd scatters
For the turnstiles.
And here's a can't miss offer: I will make a Yo La Tengo mix CD for anyone who asks. Shipping and handling included. Order now...