Yo La Tengo’s songs run the gamut, as if Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew are perpetually fingering through a rock lexicon Rolodex filled with names from the far reaches of (mostly) good taste. With the band, “You Can [sort of] Have it All”. Whether that’s a good thing or not is your decision.
The general Yo La Tengo live experience reads something like this: bossa nova grinding gears with noisy funk, a Velvet Underground drugged up rock song, then a whisper, then a shriek, then the most spastic guitar playing you have ever witnessed, another whisper, then an ear-splitting lo-res organ crackle initiated by Ira Kaplan’s forehead, then, finally, some loud applause. Thank you, Yo La Tengo?
13 albums into their career, and with what seems to be a slightly stronger sense of restraint, Yo La Tengo took to the 9:30 Club Saturday in support of the magnificent Fade, their most cohesive, consistent, and thoroughly listenable record in a spell. A four-letter title and a bite-sized 45-minute runtime make Fade a markedly different YLT listening experience. You can return to it, listen to it repeatedly, and you don’t have to devote your entire day to trying to figure out whether or not you like an 11-minute song called “Pass Me the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.”
Friday night, adorned by woodcut trees like the one found on Fade‘s cover, YLT vaguely tried to capture the record’s new direction, and they generally succeeded. Playing a mostly acoustic set to start things off, YLT began with the whispers, saving the usual Ira Kaplan clusterfuck for much later in the program. They played the quietest set I can remember seeing at a rock show. Acoustic guitars, a vintage drum machine (“We have a strict one drum machine per set regiment,” Kaplan joked), and brushed drumming would guide us through cuts from the new record, among others. A slowed down, Bossa-fied “Autumn Sweater” was just different enough from its original version to feel a bit like a different song altogether. It was all very understated.
This set was hushed enough to feel like a lullaby, with three-part whisper-harmonies feeling warm but weirdly inappropriate for a Friday night. “Ohm,” which enjoys a unique drum machine on record, was beat-less, fluttering into the air slowly and tenderly. Though at moments beautiful, the lack of energy in the acoustic set caused me to wonder what else I could be doing with my Friday night. But YLT pressed on with moving, stripped-down interpretations of songs that normally pack a bigger punch.
Set two brought the noise and feedback to the forefront, allowing for Kaplan’s signature convulsive guitar acrobatics, which always look oddly erotic to me. Some might call the style masturbatory. Tonight, it felt a slightly more restrained. Songs like “The Crying of Lot G” came across as more nuanced than usual, Kaplan whispering his confused thoughts, eyes closed into the mic like a one-man therapy session. A louder reprising of “Ohm” was odd but welcomed, and would have been a perfect way to end the night.
Then of course, “False Alarm” saw the band go full-throttle “fuck your ears and your money,” Kaplan banging on electric organ keys like he hated them, using all parts of his body, and shrieking into the microphone like Lou Reed on a particularly nasty binge. It felt like a song that would accompany one of those scenes in a teen movie where the one friend passes out during a live “rock concert” and the unassuming crush comes to the rescue; nightmarish and disorienting. I laughed, others applauded, my buddy left early. That seems to best sum up the night.
It’s 1pm Again
That’s the Point of It
Cornelia and Jane
I’ll Be Around
We’re An American Band
The Crying of Lot G
From a Motel 6
Clumsy Grandmother Serves Delicious Dessert By Mistake
Before We Run
Blue Line Swinger
Who Are the Mystery Girls (New York Dolls Cover)
Come on Lucy
Take Care (Big Star Cover)
Photos by Drew Litowitz.