- Yo La Tengo: Hoboken's great white hope.
Think of it as an ex-rock critic's revenge on his peers. Long, sufferable titles that are the bane of music journalists everywhere, yet Ira Kaplan -- erstwhile rock and roll scribe and singer-guitarist for Yo La Tengo -- insists that his band's last two albums, 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and the new And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, really weren't named as any sort of act of retribution.
"We just thought they were good titles," laughs Kaplan. "Really. We try to keep petty vendettas out of it . . . or at least out of the chain stores."
For a band fixated on its stark minimalism, the wordy album titles are about the only contradiction that seeps into its work. Otherwise, the affable Hoboken, New Jersey trio of Kaplan; his wife, drummer-singer Georgia Hubley; and bassist James McNew is pretty much what it seems on the surface: an art-rock band, now entering its 16th year, dedicated to constructing discipline out of chaos, beautiful music out of random noise. And like its muse the Velvet Underground (which it portrayed in the indie feature film I Shot Andy Warhol), Yo La Tengo realizes the muscle in subtlety.
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is its most delicate album yet: a haunting and somber reflection on -- of all things -- the love affair between Kaplan and Hubley. It's a lovely and pragmatic rumination on marriage. It's a slow dance between two people still in love after all these years. And it chronicles the ups and downs of their union with blessed realism.
The songs themselves build to a quiet smolder, often trickling down to a crawl. Kaplan concedes the project was never intended as such; it just sort of ended up that way. "I really don't think there was an inspiration behind the whole record," he explains. "We don't approach it like that. We wrote the songs over a long period of time, and we hadn't really taken any extended time off in a long, long time. So, we just kind of practiced and wrote in a fairly aimless manner for a year, with some interruptions. We gradually got more and more focused and serious about coming up with actual songs and turning what we had into actual songs. And it just seemed to happen that the songs we worked on and the stuff we kept coming back to were quiet and slow. It just kind of snuck up on us.
"Even when we went to Nashville to record the record, even though we knew the nature of the songs, we didn't know quite a bit of what is ultimately on the record. A lot of the instrument choices were made on the spur of the moment, based on things that were just lying around the studio that we thought would be fun to try to play with. And a lot of the songs that ended up on the record were surprises. There was at least one song that we thought would end up on the record that didn't. So, we really don't go into it with any kind of plan. We just want to like it."
The album's closing track, the sprawling "Night Falls on Hoboken," clocks in at 17 minutes, which is -- even for a band that regularly encourages time-consuming bits of improvisation -- a hefty slice of push and pull that never quite reaches a song-capping, satisfying peak. Still, it's one of the most potent numbers the band ever recorded. "It was long at practice," Kaplan admits. "We never timed it, but we knew that that was going to happen. We had to know, actually, because it was quite a challenge to record it, going through that many mood changes and sound changes. Each one was a problem to solve, and to record it the way we did actually took us two days to figure out."
Over the years, Yo La Tengo has evolved from its scrappy roots (the first few records are a bit tough to get through; think the Velvets and Sonic Youth puréed in a blender) to become one of indie rock's most reliable and intricate bands. Starting with 1990's Fakebook and carried through three years later on Painful (notice the short, rock-crit-friendly titles), Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew, who joined in 1992, made disjointed rock and roll noise that often approached . . . gulp . . . pop status.
"The word "pop' appears all the time in our vocabulary," Kaplan reassures. "We may have a wider definition of what that entails, but that's something we've worked on over the years: trying to combine a lot of the things we like and looking for interesting ways to do that pop side, as well as the other side."
Fakebook, in fact, was packed with cover songs. Cat Stevens, Gene Clark, Ray Davies, and John Cale all vied for time among Kaplan and Hubley's few originals. Since then, Yo La Tengo has dipped into others' music bags with regularity.
Kaplan says there's really no big plan underlying their choice of cover tunes (which has even included the Beach Boys' airy "Little Honda"); they're simply songs "we've always liked, but they have other reasons for being there, other than the fact that we like them. I never agreed with anyone that said Fakebook was a tribute to anything. It was songs that we liked and that we did well. I think some of the motivation for choosing those songs is misinterpreted."
And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out's cover du jour is Harry Wayne Casey's (KC of Sunshine Band fame) "You Can Have It All," which was originally recorded by George "Rock Your Baby" McCrae. Kaplan typically dismisses any thematic link to the rest of the album, though one can't help but think that the song may have served in some sort of courting ceremony between young lovebirds Kaplan and Hubley (see "Last Days of Disco" for more on this). "It's a song that we tried out playing one day and loved the way Georgia sang it and are proud of our arrangement of it," he says. "We just didn't want to let go of it. But I think a lot of it had to do with Georgia's singing. It was something we liked. I think she keeps getting better and better."
Which could serve as an apt summation of the band itself. Hubley and Kaplan have both become more assured singers over the years. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out's intimacy certainly wouldn't have, and couldn't have, been attempted in the past -- not even five years ago.
"The progression of the group that I normally am most interested in is the overcoming of certain shy sides of our personalities," Kaplan confirms. "Our willingness to sing loud, not necessarily in a loud voice, but mixed louder on the record, and to try different types of singing and playing, and to actually be more revealing lyrically -- I think those are all things that have developed over the years.
"Fakebook was an unusual record of the time in that we tried to carry a record with our singing, and at the time we were, at best, reluctant singers. Georgia was barely even reluctant. To do that record was an important step in that development process."
Is that why it's nearly a covers album? "I don't think it's a coincidence," Kaplan replies. "That's not really why it's a covers record. It's a covers record because that's what we did at that time. The acoustic side of the group came about when we would go to record stores or radio stations and we had to learn cover songs, because the settings were more informal. We found out we liked what we were doing and thought it was sufficiently different from the electric side of the group that we thought we would make a record in that style. That was our repertoire, and that's what we stuck to."
While Kaplan agrees I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, which combines frenzied guitar breakdowns with the softer, acoustic side of the group, is the band's most representative album, the nuances tucked away in the corners of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out surely stand to say something about Yo La Tengo. Even if it's as simple a message as "Love doesn't need to be loud to be powerful." This is a valentine from Kaplan and Hubley to one another. It may be a bit scarred at the edges, but it's determined to be an eternal and durable love letter.
Or at least until it comes time to put together the next Yo La Tengo record. "It wouldn't surprise me if we did or if we didn't make another loud guitar album," Kaplan says. "I really don't anticipate what's going to happen next. We'll see. I couldn't have anticipated this record. And wouldn't have, even if I could. A lot of times people ask, "Where did this record come from?' My answer is, "I don't know, and I don't care.'
"We like to be surprised by what's in the future. To map it out is something that not only do I think is impossible, but it's not even desirable."