YO LA TENGO fearlessly beats your ass.
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