Smile Politely

Who Are Yo La Tengo?

William: The swirling crowds in the lobby of the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts separate into grayer C-U Symphony-goers and the Pygmalion Music Festival crowd. In this austere venue, these younger patrons of the arts have a gloss of elegance, as if their jeans and hoodies have been laundered for this special occasion.

Cristy: Openers Jesse Sykes and the Sweet Hereafter shyly take the stage. Her glossy chestnut mane—like a Pantene ad in the fall issue of Cosmo—swings over her angular face as the band sails through most of their latest effort, Like, Love, Lust & the Open Halls of the Soul. Sykes’ shaky, deliberate voice channels Marianne Faithfull (well, up two octaves). While the upbeat “You Might Walk Away” shows off her dusty voice, “The Air Is Thin” boasts a stellar country slide guitar. The band introduces “Spectral Beings,” with haunting, spacy harmonies and rocks through the highlight of the show, “Station Grey.” Although Sykes and her band come across as nervous and self-deprecating, they don’t need to be. They put on a solid performance.

W: These slow, languid electric ballads, replete with pedal steel, sedate brush drumming and ghostly harmonies sound at times like an alt-country Pink Floyd. The band does not stray from this ethereal paradigm, and demonstrate an emotional range from melancholy to mildly agitated, invoking in me moods ranging from tranquil to bored—in contrast to Yo La Tengo.

C: Yo La Tengo open with the sunny “Our Way to Fall,” from 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. As they intensely nail the first four songs, I find the band difficult to figure out. So I’m left with the burning question: Who are Yo La Tengo?

Velvet Underground knockoff? That’s a little too confining, but I’m struck by how the band reminded me of the godfathers of hip New York art-noise-rock. (In fact, Yo La Tengo actually appeared as the Factory darlings in I Shot Andy Warhol.)

Indie icons? This is pretty much undisputed fact. They’re the kind of band that’s been around forever, like Sonic Youth or R.E.M. Articles about them abound in cool rags like Mojo. It seems like everyone’s heard of Yo La Tengo. However (at least in the Midwest), I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who’s owned a Yo La Tengo album. Weird.

Catchy popsters? Well, probably not, but they do have some great hooks, notably in “Beanbag Chair” and the fantastic, Philadelphia soul-inspired “Mr. Tough,” both from their latest release, the hilariously titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.

Arty jammers? They could be that, too. “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” is a never-ending sludge-fest with the occasional spastic line, “Slide, slide slide down the waterslide.” I’ll admit, I don’t appreciate the song as much as the hardcore fans do. I notice a few audience members nodding along, but I just feel like nodding off. And with the strict anti-smoking laws in concert venues, I can’t even get into it with a contact high.

W: Hardcore audience-haters? “Pass the Hatchet” demonstrates that this is a band of contrasts. While James McNew demonstrates a super-human endurance by playing the dullest three-note bassline for ten or more minutes without trying to sneak in an extra note or a cool run, guitarist Ira Kaplan convulses in the most excruciatingly indulgent spasm of atonal guitar abuse I ever care to witness. He stands by his amplifier and pounds the strings, writhing horribly like a cat who cannot stop vomiting. This is not the last song where a few people get up and leave – too cool or not cool enough?

Luckily, each song is distinct in its mood and arrangement so this bombastic foolery is not representative of the set. The trio switches instruments a fair amount, and everybody gets to sing. Georgia Hubley mostly stays put behind her drum kit, but she does come up front to play keyboards and sing lead on one song.

The songs usually have very simple instrumental lines, without much harmonic progression, yet there is a tender virtuosity in the band’s repetitive approach. There are surprising moments when it becomes clear that they actually know how to play their instruments, but technique is not what they are about. The songs are by turns atrocious, likeable, minimalist, noisy, boring, sweet, and infectiously catchy, reminding me of Sonic Youth, Beat Happening, Beck, and about five other bands. Ira Kaplan sings like Prince, Leonard Cohen with laryngitis, or Jimmy Fallon as Pat O’Brien. Though I wince at the use of guitar feedback in the acoustically perfect space, the variety adds up to a fun, always surprising, and ultimately charming concert. Ira Kaplan, in his rare moments of banter, seems incredibly gracious and expresses an apparently sincere appreciation of the twin cities. Any meanness in the man has apparently been successfully vented during his violent guitar solos.

C: The band comes back for an encore of eclectic covers: After a gentle “Speeding Motorcycle” (originally by Daniel Johnston), Kaplan declares that they’re going to play “a traditional Illinois song.” The band rips into “Come On, Come On,” a spot-on homage to Rockford’s favorite sons, Cheap Trick. Finally, they end with Sun-Ra’s “Nuclear War,” dedicated to “the junior senator from the great state of Illinois, Barack Obama.” By then, they’ve won me over. Could Yo La Tengo really be…gasp…a cover band?

W: Yes. And a political band. The encore feels extremely thoughtful, crafted just for us. The unguarded commercial rock of Cheap Trick in the midst of this is like a banana split in the desert. And I love “Nuclear War,” a song sadly as relevant today as it was in 1982. It ends with Ira Kaplan walking with shakers up the aisles of the Tryon Festival Theatre leading a procession of audience members, clapping in unison, into the lobby, and up to the balcony—and then he had to run down to the merch table to sell T-shirts. “Talking about / yeah / nuclear war / yeah.” They had me with “It’s a mother fucker.” I love this band.

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