Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Yo La Tengo

  • President Yo La Tengo [Twin/Tone, 1989] A-
  • Fakebook [Restless/Bar/None, 1990] Choice Cuts
  • May I Sing With Me [Alias, 1992] ***
  • Painful [Matador, 1993] A-
  • Electr-O-Pura [Matador, 1995] A
  • Tom Courtenay [Matador, 1995] Dud
  • Camp Yo La Tengo [Matador, 1995] Choice Cuts
  • Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo [Matador, 1996] Neither
  • I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One [Matador, 1997] A
  • And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out [Matador, 2000] B+
  • Nuclear War [Matador EP, 2002] **
  • Merry Christmas From Yo La Tengo [Egon EP, 2002] *
  • The Sounds of the Sounds of Science [Egon, 2002] Dud
  • Summer Sun [Matador, 2003] A
  • Today Is the Day [Matador, 2003] *
  • Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003 [Matador, 2005]  
  • I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass [Matador, 2006] A-
  • Popular Songs [Matador, 2009] **
  • Fade [Matador, 2013] A-
  • Stuff Like That There [Matador, 2015] A
  • There's a Riot Going On [Matador, 2018] A-
  • This Stupid World [Matador, 2023] B+

Consumer Guide Reviews:

President Yo La Tengo [Twin/Tone, 1989]
Exceptionally well-connected on a very social scene, Ira Kaplan seemed even less likely than his fellow semipros to record music worth telling the world about, especially after his breathy debut thumbed its larynx at vocal projection and the well-illustrated New Wave Hot Dogs proved typically forgettable in its lilt-and-yell competence. Yet except maybe for Thelonious Monster, no Amerindie band all year has come off stronger openers than "Barnaby, Hardly Working" (mysterioso guitar hook) and "Drug Test" ("I wish I was high"). Nor can I recall a "Sister Ray" hommage as felt as the live 10-minute "Evil That Men Do." They rock out, they wax poetic, they cover Dylan, they do their bit for the boho weal. A-

Fakebook [Restless/Bar/None, 1990]
"Speeding Motorcycle"; "The Summer"; "Emulsified" Choice Cuts

May I Sing With Me [Alias, 1992]
hey Mr. and Mrs. Tambourine Man, play that feedback for me ("Some Kinda Fatigue," "Upside-Down") ***

Painful [Matador, 1993]
Correcting for off-and-on songwriting by declining to write full-fledged ones, they turn into Hoboken's answer to My Bloody Valentine on this expansive collection of riffs to jam on. The difference is that even at their most aleatory, which in a close contest is probably the Hammond B-3 workout "Sudden Organ," they're always friendly. This is not the forbidding experimentation of an aspiring vanguard. This is the fooling around of folks who like to go out on Saturday night and make some noise--and then go home humming it. A-

Electr-O-Pura [Matador, 1995]
Altern-A-Pura would be more like it. Brimful of punk, fuzz, feedback, noise, and the lovingly amped squelches of fingers sliding off strings, their seventh album is a subcultural tour de force, luxuriating so sybaritically in guitar sound that I'm reluctant to mention that the tunes are pretty good. That's why it's the best record they've ever made, though. Singing's breathy as usual, with Ira yelling when the time is right. As for the lyrics, you know--murmured, gnomic, pop culture references, that kind of thing. A

Tom Courtenay [Matador, 1995] Dud

Camp Yo La Tengo [Matador, 1995]
"Can't Seem to Make You Mine" Choice Cuts

Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo [Matador, 1996] Neither

I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One [Matador, 1997]
No one has made more of bohemian easy-listening--cocktail samba, trance-skronk, good old-fashioned slow ones than Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, boho dream couple and cultural miniaturists. From the misshapen piano figure that trumps "Moby Octopad"'s Peter Townshend guitar swell to "Deeper Into Movies"' raveup workout, from Georgia's simulated Astrud Gilberto cover to James McNew's simulated Neil Young ballad, this is a band that has figured out what makes its faves tick and its tickers beat as one. The very peak is "Autumn Sweater," which with its "We could slip away" refrain comes on like (gulp!) a cheating song, only to reveal itself as Ira's diffident, lovestruck tribute to Georgia's companionable support. Modest rather than narrow, their joy and sadness are no less sweet or intense for the larger life they know nothing of. A

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out [Matador, 2000]
The main problem with this background tour de force is that you understand not just how good it is but how pretty it is only when you listen up. The whispered guitar and pattering drum patterns, the unattainable sounds, the details of a modest love for the ages--all mean what they mean in part because they're so quiet. Yet if you don't get it, all I can advise is: Play Loud. B+

Nuclear War [Matador EP, 2002]
four versions of the same scary-funny protest song, (any) one of which we need ("Version 2," "Version 1") **

Merry Christmas From Yo La Tengo [Egon EP, 2002]
Three Xmas songs you don't know is miracle enow ("Santa Claus Goes Modern," "Rock N Roll Santa"). *

The Sounds of the Sounds of Science [Egon, 2002] Dud

Summer Sun [Matador, 2003]
See: Beating as One. A

Today Is the Day [Matador, 2003]
Remix, cover, instrumental, great Summer Sun reject, ordinary Summer Sun reject, judicious Summer Sun reject ("Styles of the Times," "Needle of Death"). *

Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003 [Matador, 2005]
Since Yo La Tengo's discographical accomplishments begin with their mastery of their own song titles, I assumed and fervently hoped that this best-of would boast a neat table indicating recording date and provenance of original release, but instead the booklet comprises readable, fact-impaired essays by two bosom buddies. Those scamps. Research indicates that of the 26 songs on the first two discs, no more than three come from any of their four best albums; that either disc plays as smoothly as any of said four and as deeply as any but I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One; and that the "outtakes and rarities" add-on consistently recalls those moments on said four that you forgive and even enjoy because they're on their best albums. These aren't. [Recyclables]  

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass [Matador, 2006]
What's most remarkable about this stylistic portmanteau is that every song is an original even though you assume several are among their shoulda-been-a-hit-but-wtf-is-it? covers--more than several, but you know they wouldn't do that. Equally remarkable is that the lyrics you can make out are impossible to keep your mind on. Georgia and Ira sound more happily married than ever. They want to enact this state in all its instant gratification and infinite variety. But they're not inclined to reveal many details. I respect their privacy. But I remain curious. A-

Popular Songs [Matador, 2009]
Georgia and Ira's 20th-anniversary history lesson ("And the Glitter Is Gone," "Periodically Double or Triple"). **

Fade [Matador, 2013]
Their quietest and most fragile album is also their most orchestrated--horns! strings! live! (on four songs total). Even so, the songwriting is so diffident it tempts us to fill in the blanks by concluding that what we've long been told is all there is to know. This music's ground is a warm, sweet, committed relationship troubled by withdrawal issues each partner enacts in his or her own way--silence met with impassivity, say. But on their quiestest album, for the first time, mortality has crept through the door. Conclusion: "Find the comfort in our life/Before it disappears." (Hence the orchestrations?) A-

Stuff Like That There [Matador, 2015]
Right, it's been a quarter of a century, but how they've changed since Fakebook. There's the bassist around whom Georgia and Ira cohered. There's Georgia's increasingly confident calm meshing with Ira's increasingly thoughtful quiet. There's the fragile, enduring lyricism that's been their musical heart since "Autumn Sweater," and the uneasy, enduring domesticity that goes with it. Ira took the lead on Fakebook's covers, which tended toward a perky cheek now gone. But amazing as ever on this second covers album is his ear for the obscure ditty. The heartbreakingly cute Darlene McCrea opener "My Heart's Not in It." The existentially anxious Great Plains midpoint"Before We Stopped to Think." The Lovin' Spoonful filler "Butchie's Tune." Sun Ra's chart-ready "Somebody's in Love." Hell, the Cure hit "Friday I'm in Love." They also cover themselves and birth a few new ones. But what makes this their loveliest album ever is Ira's ditties combined with Georgia's confident calm. Her "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry" isn't Hank's, or Al's either. But in its own way it's just as good, bereft with only the barest show of emotion--she doesn't ever really raise or even intensify her voice. You're forced to wonder, and worry--what's she got to be bereft about, anyway? A

There's a Riot Going On [Matador, 2018]
This inward-looking, barely verbalized album describes a parabola. Beginning with the hypnotic instrumental "You Are Here" and ending with the fragmented instumental-with-murmurs "Here You Are," it builds through five low-key songs to three six-minute instrumentals centered on the pulseless electronic "Shortwave," which reveals ionospheric subchatter when you turn the volume up, only why would you? Then come five less shapely songs, and there you are: in a time roiled by the political turmoil the title puts up front, a domesticated Yo La version of the kind of esoteric atmospherics I myself treasure in Hassell & Eno's Fourth World Vol. 1, Orüj Güvenc's Ocean of Remembrance, We's As Is, and Marcel Khalifé's Andalusia of Love. They mean to create not just music as a refuge, but recognizably indie-rock music as a refuge. "Shortwave" is too murky and cerebral. But "You Are Here" could open their sets forever, "Esportes Casual" is a perky relief, "Polynesia #1" makes me want to go, "For You Too" is my kind of love song, and "Forever" is my wife's. So yes, I find succor here. A-

This Stupid World [Matador, 2023]
It may seem perverse to quote an entire stanza of an all too jam-heavy nine-track album five years in the waiting, but that stanza is quintessential: "I was wrong/I knew right away but I played it cool/That trick never works/Took too long/And then I got mad because you got mad/Another one of my delightful quirks/What a jerk." If Ira has a message to the world, that sums it up even better than Inspirational Verse we should be glad comes in the middle: "Prepare to die/Prepare yourself while there's still time." B+

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