Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Beating As One
Yo La Tengo Make Their Love Album

Somehow I felt that before I could write about Yo La Tengo's terrific new Summer Sun I needed an at-home with Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. After all, I almost knew them, and not only as friend-of-friends like everybody else in the general vicinity of indie-rock. I'd edited a Soft Boys piece by Ira for this newspaper, and, well, had melted to Georgia's toddler drawl in her parents' Oscar-winning Moonbirds when I was just 16. Or so I thought till I learned that Georgia was John and Faith's post-Moonbirds kid. She's 43 now, Ira's 46. Married 15 years and together 22, they're an iconic couple who get better press than Mother Teresa. Yet they're reticent about private things, which makes me one of the few reporters ever to see their pad. I'm honored.

It's a modest third-floor condo in Hoboken, theirs for 10 years now: big L-shaped living-dining-cooking area, big bedroom with big TV and the bed made for my visit, and smaller, well, junk room. If these lifers haven't solved the storage problem, there's no hope for the rest of us, but facts are facts. What should have been the dining-room table was covered with piles of CDs that Georgia says were even higher before the couple got back from a European trip. For Georgia's birthday, Ira had arranged to have new hardwood flooring installed while they were gone. All their stuff had to be removed and put back, and though some of the vinyl is now out of order, sparing Georgia (and himself) that domestic ordeal was genius.

That's the only kind of genius Ira pretends to. Congeniality is more his thing. Yet he can be a cantankerous interview. Over the 10 years since he or Georgia worked for anyone else (as freelance copy editors, mostly), he's come to dislike the term "day job." After all, Georgia goes so far as to keep the books for the band-owned corporation that pays their salaries, so as he puts it: "We have a day job right now--we manage our band." Although he made his living writing about music in the early '80s, Ira also resists the tendency to slot Yo La as a critic's band--he believes he uses his encyclopedic knowledge of pop history like a fan. So when I brought up bohemia, he naturally thought the concept sounded too self-congratulatory: "I don't feel very bohemian. I feel we're more middle-class," he said. "We watch too much TV to be bohemian," Georgia chimed in.

The day job and rock critic points Ira can have, but marginality is too central to brush aside like that--especially since it's the rare bohemian who identifies with or even knows much about the bohemian tradition, which like any other social construct has evolved plenty over two centuries. For instance, just as there have always been bohemians who held jobs (not every non-rentier is willing to starve), there have always been bohemians who ran their own businesses, usually in and around the arts--going back to Henri Murger's Scenès de la Vie Bohème, often the popular and/or performing arts. What's changed is how the market for their products shifted as elements of an expanding middle class rejected conformism--today's freelance impresarios depend less on épater-le-bourgeois and more on fellow spirits in related lines of work. The viability of an alt-rock subculture that picks up young recruits as it retains a modicum of old-timers is a perfect example. Many of them watch too much TV.

Similarly, there have always been married bohemians. These can be more or less conventional, more or less ardent, and also more or less stable--in rock, certainly, often less. From X and the Human Switchboard breaking up in public to Quasi and the White Stripes raking over their passions, there seem to be as many divorces in Alternia as in Hollywood, or Darien. But New York has long been home to alt-rock's two most conspicuous conjugal success stories: Kim and Thurston, Georgia and Ira. So with Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo, the relationships inevitably become part of the artistic creation. Like teenpoppers parsing Justin and Britney, the habitués of gossip-prone, human-scale Alternia can't and shouldn't resist conflating music and biography. Which means the warm Summer Sun can be fairly construed as an answer record to Sonic Youth's distinctly autumnal A Thousand Leaves. Anyone naive enough to believe happy marriages are all alike should ponder how different these two are--or more precisely, this being art, seem to be.

Kim and Thurston long ago set themselves up in loco parentis. They're scene-shaping guardians of new talent, role models from above--sexy-cool, nice but also fierce--and musically, even their lyrical late albums are edged with coldness and intellection. Though only a few years their junior, Georgia and Ira are shy kids by comparison--friendly, fuzzy, cuddly, affectionate. They sound like they want to be your pals, with Ira always gabbing--on the new album, he offers "to take questions for you"--and Georgia laid back. Their use of postpunk noise, which goes back to mid-'80s beginnings that also just barely postdate Sonic Youth's, verges on decorative; for them it's a way to fend off ineptitude, not to naturalize highbrow tuning ideas. Their lyricism too is simpler, prettier, easier--my selection from Ira's pop encyclopedia is a lovely Gary Lewis & the Playboys title I didn't know I owned till he did it solo acoustic at an Alan Betrock memorial. All of which finds a correlative in the vocal style Georgia and Ira share, a style nobody else gets right: over on the spoken side of singing, they murmur rather than whisper, betraying not the slightest exertion as they follow the gentle contours of the tunes they pull out of their asses.

In other words, Georgia and Ira are the rare citizens of Alternia, an imaginary nation-community that prizes intimacy, who have made intimacy signify--not just with their couplehood putting flesh on the illusion, but with the hard-earned skills of hobbyists turned pro. They were so well-liked that early on they could coast as the pet band of the New York scene. But they were in it for love and in love for life, and they kept getting better. The turning point, although hardly the first positive sign, was 1993's Painful--they haven't made anything approaching a duff album since. And 1993 is key for another reason: it's when Georgia and Ira hooked up with a permanent bassist, the decade-younger James McNew. Without McNew, would Ira have become the true postpunk Neil Young in a domain teeming with pretenders to that rude wooden throne? Would Georgia have become a forceful then subtle drummer, a charming then thoughtful singer? Probably, but you might not have noticed. As they coalesced into a full-fledged band their formal command crystallized as well.

In 1997, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One--a title that evokes couple and band simultaneously--managed to say everything they had to say in 78 minutes or less: rock riffs, pop rips, organ trips, impossibly pretty tunes they might have made up themselves, doo-doo-doos by the number, ambient miasma, McNew's gorgeous Neil ballad "Stockholm Syndrome," and loads of love love love. It's no challenge or insult to state categorically that they'll never top it. A career album is the musical version of eternal life, not a death sentence. But though I didn't ask and doubt they'd agree, the dilemma of not topping it may be why they proceeded to 2000's rather beautiful, very slow And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, the lounged-up mood of which reflects both McNew's omnivorous contemporary CD consumption and Georgia's lifelong involvement with soundtracks.

Summer Sun starts off from the same lovely place, with the trumpet-flecked atmospherics of "Beach Party Tonight," then picks up the tempo with the first of three songs that define the album. Georgia's "Little Eyes" longs to share her insomniac wanderings; Ira's "Don't Have to Be So Sad" tells her how much he loves her while she sleeps unhearing; Ira's "Nothing but You and Me" prays she wake up to make up. All are solidly hooked at a decent speed, all suggest discontents that may be literal autobiography or apt poetry, and all take off from a paradigmatic marriage state unfamiliar to newer, younger couples--the state where one partner is conscious and the other isn't. On this record where McNew is totally present and totally backgrounded, the way longtime lovers are always there to remind each other isn't just a theme. It's bedrock. Even the instrumental track that kicks off the second half, a Medeski Martin & Wood-for-Dummies organ-funk thing that's the most striking by far of the band's many attempts to create a theoretical lounge number to go with all their theoretical pop ditties, is entitled "Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo." You wonder whether that's her on bongos, on piano. But you know she's always there. Happiness shape-shifts and no bohemia is forever--our president's political and economic policies are designed among other things to destroy all the alternacomforts we've learned to take for granted. So Georgia and Ira aren't some ideal to emulate, and wouldn't claim to be. Me, I like Kim and Thurston's sharpness, and in addition, they're real-life as well as symbolic parents--only childless couples enjoy the kind of slack that accrues to shy kids with a junk room. But I also like Georgia and Ira's kindness, steadiness, supportiveness. I feel them as secret sharers, fellow spirits, symbolic pals. And I'm grateful Yo La Tengo left this emotional record while the emotions were good.

Village Voice, Apr. 15, 2003