After a few dozen listenings, I'm positive that YO LA TENGO's newest album (the hilariously titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass) is not only one of the best albums of 2006, but also one of the best of the band's long and storied career. In much the same way that SONIC YOUTH have done with their recent record, Georgia, Ira and James have made an album that acts as a incredible distillation of everything the band has done to this point, creating the perfect starting point for new fans. If you can't get into both bands' most recent offerings, you probably aren't going to like anything else they've done.
My first exposure to Yo La Tengo came as a double dose in my Junior year of high school. I was working as a deejay at an underground, cable-only radio station dubbed KRCK, which specialized in "college rock" or "alternative" music (the "alternative" tag would eventually take off and gain a life of its own). Working at that station between the age of 14 to 17 had an extraordinary effect on me, as I was constantly being exposed to all kinds of music I'd never heard of, from Big Black to the aforementioned Sonic Youth. One day in the mail we received a compilation called Freedom of Choice, which featured covers of 80s New Wave classics peformed by bands like Superchunk, Big Dipper and Yo La Tengo.
On that compilation -- which, like all compilations, was pretty hit or miss -- YLT did a fun, noisy rendition of "Dreaming", one of my favorite BLONDIE songs. My interest was piqued, but finding a Yo La Tengo record in Omaha, NE, was a pretty daunting task at the time. It wasn't long afterwards that I lucked into a promo for the re-release of the band's second album, combined with a previously released EP, called President Yo La Tengo/New Wave Hot Dogs. While indie rock was still a new concept for me to grasp, several of the songs on that record really jumped out at me, including "Alyda" and "Barnaby, Hardly Working."
So there you have it, my introduction to the band that I have followed faithfully for almost 15 years. What follows is an assortment of my favorite Yo La Tengo tracks, spanning their entire career:
"Alrock's Bells" from Ride the Tiger: While Tiger was their debut album, released in 1986, it would be a dozen years before I heard anything from it. I owe that to my friend Olivia, who was adventurous enough to give it a chance. "Alrock's Bells" was the first song I ever heard, and I still remember Olivia handing over her headphones one day at work so I could hear it for myself. The song kind of wanders around a bit on a groovy little bassline, but it's that glorious burst of guitar and vocals near the end that dropped my jaw and made me realize I'd made a mistake by not seeking this album out sooner.
"You Tore Me Down" from Fakebook: For most bands, resorting to an album of covers is usually a signal that they've run out of ideas and have run their course (I'm looking at you, Rod Stewart, and your new career as cover whore). For Yo La Tengo, it was still the beginning. Their third record mixes a few originals (including an acoustic "Barnaby, Hardly Working") with a ton of great covers, including this take of a Flamin' Groovies song.
"From a Motel 6" from Painful: Pretty much the quintessential Yo La Tengo single.
"Blue Line Swinger" from the Camp Yo La Tengo EP: While I've always enjoyed the sprawling noise-epic that is the album version of "Blue Line Swinger" from Electr-O-Pura, I really prefer this EP version, with Georgia Hubley's soft, mournful vocals. Download them both and choose for yourself.
"Decora (Acoustic)" from A Smattering of Outtakes and Rarities: Here's a sleepy acoustic take on the opener to Electr-O-Pura.
"Sugarcube" from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One: Of all the Yo La Tengo records I own, none had more of a profound effect on me than this one. It's not even something I can explain without this turning into a therapy session, so we'll just stick to the facts here. This record is virtually flawless, featuring ample chunks of everything from pop, electronica, folk and -- as presented here -- firey psychedelic/punk rock. It doesn't hurt that the hilarious video for "Sugarcube" features some of the cast of the brilliant cult comedy series Mr. Show with Bob and David. The part where Ira takes an eraser to the head gets me every time:
"By the Time it Gets Dark" from the Little Honda EP: Another rocker on I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One finds Yo La Tengo putting a Velvet Underground spin on the old Beach Boys classic, "Little Honda." The accompanying EP features a ton of great cover songs not on the album, including songs by William DeVaughn, The Kinks, and this one by folk singer Sandy Denny.
"Everyday" from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside out: Initially, I was really disappointed in Nothing as the follow-up to the aforementioned I Can Feel. . .. It's definitely a more downbeat record, with very few rockers ("Cherry Chapstick" being the obvious exception). While not as easily accessible, Nothing has a quiet, almost subliminal power, as evident in the album opener, "Everyday." It drones, it buzzes, it's spooky as hell. Sink in.
"Little Eyes" from Summer Sun: Okay, so I have a thing for Georgia's voice. What of it?
"I Feel Like Going Home" from I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass: Tonight's final song is my current favorite tune from YLT's new record. Unfortunately, it's virtually impossible for me to pick one song to possibly represent an album that covers so many different styles. If you haven't already, just check the record out for yourself. My best rec is to head over to eMusic and get yourself a monthly subscription. You can get the entire thing for about 3 bucks. 3 bucks!
FOR MORE INFORMATION, ETC:
- Get a ton of free downloads at the official Yo La Tengo site, including two songs from the new record.
- This Wikipedia entry has some gerat info on the band, including the roots of their unusual name.
- One of the best Onion articles of all time, 37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster
Twenty years ago (or 21 years this coming January), at the age of 36, Phil Lynott overdosed on heroin.
Lynott was born in England to parents who split up three weeks after his birth. While he was raised in Ireland by his grandmother, his mother frequently visited him as he grew up, and it was Philomena Lynott who discovered her sick son (and learned of his addictions to heroin and alcohol) over the Christmas holiday in 1986. He was taken to a hospital, where he died less than two weeks later of kidney, liver and heart failure.
An unattributed quote from a 1987 Metal Gear article on the demise of Lizzy and Lynott has the man writing his own epitaph: "When I die, I think my final report will say: 'Did better than expected, but not quite as well as hoped for."
It kind of breaks my heart to know that a guy with so much talent and promise felt so sad and helpless. He had accomplished a hell of a lot in his lifetime, and left behind a great catalogue of music. Lizzy fans might argue over my picks in these past three posts, and maybe they can steer you in directions I've missed. I'm just giving you a few of my favorites in the hopes that you'll go out and try a few of the band's records (I personally recomend Jailbreak, their self titled debut, Vagabonds of the Western World, Fighting and, if you're into live records, Live and Dangerous.)
With that in mind. . .
THIN LIZZY, Pt. 3
"Rosalie": Believe it or not, there was a time many MANY years ago, before he became the Mellencamp prototype, when Bob Seger used to actually kick some ass. I'll give you a moment to let that thought sink in. Ready to move on? "Rosalie" is one of Seger's old rockers, and Lizzy covered it as the opener of Fighting. Their cover almost singlehandedly makes the case for Seger as Detroit asskicker (though if you need further proof, download "Ramblin' Gamblin' Man" from his 1968 debut album). The song became a live staple, a version of which you can find right here. Thanks to reader "kelly" for suggesting the Seger cover. Kelly also highly rec's "Fighting My Way Back" from the same record.
"Cowboy Song": Another highlight from the virtually flawless Jailbreak album. I love the slow build up at the beginning into that guitar riff. Now that I mention it, I've never been a huge fan of the word "riff." I always wish there were more words to describe a guitar part. But in the case of Thin Lizzy (and a few other bands, like AC/DC), "riff" is totally the right word. So if you've seen an overabundance of the word "riff" in these past few posts, that is why.
"Southbound": If you're ever looking for that perfect soundtrack for just getting the fuck out of town and blazing a trail off into the sunset, Thin Lizzy is your band. If I had a few million dollars to spare, I'd love to make a modern Western and use only Lizzy tunes as the soundtrack. "Southbound" would probably have to be saved for the end credits. Any film directors out there want to collaborate? Quentin?
"Honesty is No Excuse": The first time I heard this, I was amazed it was from the band's debut album. Lynott's lyrics are so frank, confessional and full of regret that you'd think they were coming from a man twice his age. "Up till now my youthful stage / Was a useless rage, a torn out page, a worn out gauge / A dirty shade, a big charade, a has been made / And honesty was my only excuse."
"For Those Who Love to Live": Another track from Fighting tonight, this one a groovy little mid-tempo/uptempo rocker about living, loving and - again - running away.
"Whiskey in the Jar": The hit that put Thin Lizzy on the map wouldn't come until just before the band's third record, Vagabonds of the Western World. A cover of an old Irish folk song, "Whiskey" tells the story of a Robin Hood-esque character betrayed by his lover. (This Wikipedia entry gives some more detailed information on all of the various versions of the song.) With a hit under their belts and a newly acquired Top Ten status, Thin Lizzy were afforded more time to work on and record their music, giving them their best album to date. While "Whiskey" didn't actually appear on the Vagabonds LP, it has since been added to CD pressings of the album.
"Ode to a Black Man": Tonight's final song is actually from Phil Lynott's 1980 solo album Solo in Soho. Detroit rockers THE DIRTBOMBS do a fantastic cover of this, but unfortunately I'm nowhere near my hard drive tonight to share it with you. Perhaps in a future post. Regardless, theirs was the first I'd heard of the song, and I immediately sought out the original from a blogger at a site called Kittytext, who was doing a regular Thursday posting of Lizzy tracks. The song calls out a number of black heroes, and even calls out Stevie Wonder for turning away from his political songwriting (the lyric "I don't want no songs for plants, I want songs for me" is a reference to Wonder's disappointing Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants). Huey Lewis pops up at some point on Lynott's solo record, and I'm guessing right now that he's the one playing the harmonica here. Anyone know the answer to that one?
(Photo: Denis O'Regan)
Welcome to Part 2 of what will probably be a trilogy of posts in tribute to the late, great rockers Thin Lizzy. In the next couple of days, I'll be finishing up what should amount to a CD mixer full of great Lizzy tunes.
The difficulty factor for me is that I will be intentionally leaving out the band's two biggest hits, "Jailbreak" and "Boys are Back in Town." If you don't already have those tunes, you should really just pony up the two bucks they would cost you on iTunes. For the price of playing them on a jukebox, you can own them and add them to the mix yourself. Also, I'm throwing in a couple of bonus tracks at the end of the post, so make sure you get 'em all tonight.
THIN LIZZY, Pt. 2
"Remembering Pt. 2": Here lead vocalist Phil Lynott gives his best raspy-voiced Rod Stewart performance. This track originally appeared on the "New Day" EP, but has since been repackaged with their debut record as bonus tracks. I highly recommend picking up that album, especially if you like Thin Lizzy but aren't a big fan of the bombastic stadium rockers on their later records.
"Little Darling": A friend of mine listed this horn laced single from 1974 as a b-side in his makeshift liner notes for a mix he gave me about a year ago. Wikipedia indicates that it was an A-side single. Either way, it wasn't released on a full album. . . surprising, since it's a such a blast. I love the (double) guitar solo, and how it basically extends into the last verse of the song as everything builds to a crescendo.
"Borderline": Jesus, could Phil Lynott really convey sadneses with that soulful voice. If you played this song in a dive bar in the middle of the afternoon, I'm pretty sure half the room would sneak off to commit suicide in the bathroom, especially after "Seven beers and still sober / It's time to change to something stronger / I cannot take this scene no longer / She could have told me it's all over."
"Dublin": It's hard sometimes to write about classic rock bands because I just know I'm not really bringing anything new to the game. Most people who know about Thin Lizzy know that they were an Irish band. Is this news to anyone out there? Anyway, if you didn't already know, "Dublin" should pretty much blow the case. It's just a short little acoustic ballad with a little electric guitar and what sounds like either a keyboard or bells, but it's a nice little ode to the band's hometown. This also appeared on the aforementioned "New Day" EP.
"The Rocker": Alright, enough ballads tonight, let's get back to rocking. And what better way to accomplish that than with a completely obvious Phil Lynott song about how much he rocks? "I take no lip, no one's tougher than me!" Bragging, posing, acting like a tough bastard: Phil Lynott is hip hop, bitches.
"Toughest Street in Town": Did you not hear me when I said I was tough, Phil seems to be saying. He lives on the toughest street on planet Earth, people! You know how the movie Halloween came out and it was some seriously scary shit, and now years later it's kind of comical but still really badass as far as horror movies go? "Toughest Street in Town" is like that: unintentionally hilarious and yet completely oozing with RAWK.
"I'm A Cuckoo" by BELLE AND SEBASTIAN: I have a bootleg somewhere in my apartment where B&S cover Lizzy's "The Boys are Back in Town," and they really nail it. "I'm a Cuckoo," from Dear Catastrophe Waitress is an obvious ode to the band. They even lyrically name check the band AND pay tribute to the "Romeo/own-e-oh" lyric I mentioned in my previous post, rhyming "Tokyo" with "Thin Lizzy-oh." It sounds like a cover of something off of Jailbreak.
"Dark Trance (Psychic Lightning)" by HOCKEY NIGHT: While the band's name fails to pop up in the lyrics, I think the influence here is pretty obvious, especially if you've listened to the songs I've posted so far. There's even a double lead guitar solo to cap it all off.
FOR MORE INFORMATION:
- Check out the Thin Lizzy Guide for tons more information on the band, including singles charts and some fantastic, rare photos and memorabilia.
- The story of Lizzy over at Classic Bands, including the trivia nugget that Lizzy was started by two former members of Van Morrison's THEM.
- More TL info, including an insanely detailed gig list, over at Rock Legend.
Tonight, apropos of nothing in particular, I'm beginning a weeklong series of posts about legendary classic rockers THIN LIZZY. Lizzy has always been one of those bands that gets pigeonholed in the category of hard rock. While they covered a whole range of songs, from rockers to ballads and even hints of folk (their version of the Irish folk song "Whiskey in the Jar" was a minor hit for them in America), they seem to have been gradually written off in the years since they broke up and lead singer/bassist Phil Lynott died at the age of 35.
I didn't become a real fan of Thin Lizzy until a few years ago, when I caught their single "Jailbreak" in some movie on cable. I bought a copy of their hit album Jailbreak a few weeks later and fell in love with Lynott's Springsteen-esque songwriting and the band's innovative use of dual lead guitars. Around that same time, I made friends with a neighbor named Shane who was absolutely obsessed with the band. Soon I was taking in listenings of Johnny the Fox and Live and Dangerous. I was converted.
For the doubters out there, I hope this series of posts can help enlighten you a little and maybe steer you toward a band you may have only thought was a punchline a la Spinal Tap. By Saturday or Sunday, I'll have posted enough tracks for a do-it-yourself mix CD. Collect 'em all, put them on plastic and pop them in your car's CD player. Turn this shit up loud and hit the road. That's the only way to listen to Thin Lizzy.
"The Farmer": If I'm not mistaken, this was the band's first single, released on 7" in 1971. At the time, the band was just a trio, so that trademark dual guitar thing hadn't happened yet. Not sure who is playing piano here.
"Emerald": Now there is that double lead guitar thing I was talking about. These aren't just dual guitars; they're dueling guitars! Plus, you've got a song about Irish cities ablaze, dead in the streets and pirates and plunderers running amok. Even better than this is the live version of "Emerald" from the Live and Dangerous album. Cock rock at its finest.
"Black Boys on the Corner": Beyond Jimi Hendrix and maybe LOVE's Arthur Lee, there weren't a lot of black lead singers in the rock world in the late 60s and early 70s. Phil Lynott was one of those exceptions, and he often wrote songs from that kind of an outsider's perspective. "Black Boys" is easily one of my favorite Lizzy songs, from Lynott's howling vocals to that incredible off kilter guitar line that carries the verses. To steal a quote from an old Eddie Murphy movie, "That is a stone groove, my man!"
"Romeo and the Lonely Girl": Back when I discovered Jailbreak, this was the first song to jump out at me as being stylistically different than what I was expecting from Thin Lizzy. It's not exactly a ballad, but it's a sweet little song about a great looking guy who couldn't even trust his friends. I think the stretch of rhyming "Romeo" and "sittin' all on his own-e-oh" is a pretty adoreable stretch for a "hard rock" band.
"Little Girl in Bloom": I'm closing out tonight with one of Thin Lizzy's best ballads, a song told from the perspective of a young pregnant girl's fears about her secret and her world closing in on her. There's just something about the way this song starts, with the drone of feedback and the ominous bassline, that gets under your skin. If you can't get into this song, you're not going to get into Thin Lizzy.
Stay tuned this week for more Lizzy. Many thanks to my friend Mike for sourcing me some of the great material I'll be sharing with you.