Yo La Tengo is easily one of the most critically acclaimed, fanatically popular and longest-lived groups of indie-rock's first age. Long known as a quintessential critic's band, Yo La Tengo is also a band comprised of unabashed music fans, likely more so than most other groups.
Throughout its career, Yo La Tengo has devoted an appreciable amount of time, effort and vinyl (literally and metaphorically) to chronicling and exploring the music its members love, so much so that the band might easily be taken for musical ark-builders of sorts.
Bassist James McNew, though, takes a much more nonchalant view.
"I don't think we think of ourselves as archivists or guest lecturers," he says. "I think we're mostly just fans, when it comes to that. Nerdy as it is, I think that's just what it is."
Though the Yo Las have been practicing their brand of sonorous hero worship since the beginning, with nearly every YLT release, from 1986 debut Ride the Tiger onward, containing a cover or two, 1990's aptly titled Fakebook really showcased the band's prowess with other people's music for the first time.
That album also marks the first major stepping stone in another eventual YLT hallmark. Rampantly eclectic in its selection of musical esoterica, Fakebook nonetheless manages to feel like nothing other than, and be instantly recognizable as, Yo La Tengo.
Few bands can pull off this kind of chameleonlike shape-shifting while still maintaining a sense of aural cohesion, yet Yo La Tengo has managed to do it for a quarter-century, hopscotching from seething noise freakouts to lilting folk balladry or gentle atmospherics as easily as most other bands execute simple chord changes.
In typical effusive fashion, McNew shrugs off the idea, as if he'd never even noticed.
"It's kinda weird to try to describe because I don't think we think about it too much," he says. "I think as far as different styles are concerned, I think that's just kind of the way we think about and the way we listen to music. We're huge fans of all different kinds of music.
"Lord knows we can't completely imitate much of it, but we love it, and I'm sure that everything that goes into our brains comes out somehow in the way that we play and write. I don't know," McNew adds. "Maybe playing a lot of cover songs has something to do with it. It gives you this sort of inroad into playing in a style that maybe you wouldn't ordinarily, and then that knowledge just kind of stays with you."
It's no secret that early Yo La Tengo (and everything else, really) took the Velvet Underground as a primary source of inspiration. Although McNew wasn't around for YLT's first few records, he agrees that the Velvets were instrumental in shaping the band's musical mind-set, perhaps contributing to the group's ability to take on so many musical personas.
"I had this kind of fairy-tale story of hearing them for the first time," he recounts. "My ninth-grade English teacher gave me a copy of White Light, White Heat to listen to, and I stopped paying attention to school like that day, and that kind of just blew my mind forever. That record has the super intense stuff, and then pretty stuff as well, within the span of a really short album.
"I always thought that about the Velvet Underground, you know," McNew explains. "They have like, insane, 20-minute-long screeching noise jams, and then they had their third record, and it's kind of like they were a band that could do anything, and yet always sound like themselves, whether it was really sweet, or really abrasive and frightening. I think that that's the height, to be able to be that versatile and still be themselves. It's totally amazing to behold, and I'm just in awe of that."
Between Yo La Tengo's love for similarly flexible bands and its frequent forays (both live and on record) into the recesses of its members' record collections, the band has a continuum in pop music, grafting disparate times and styles onto its own personal notion of the American pop music experience.
"I just love the idea that the Electric Eels could be considered an American Standard," opines an amused McNew. "That's the kind of America I want to live in."
Whether or not he takes the idea seriously, that's just the kind of America YLT is creating, at least in the minds and ears of its audience. Through its covers and its eclectic originals, Yo La Tengo has become a band that knows music so well that its entire oeuvre listens like a living fakebook.
"I think it's only in our minds that that exists," demurs McNew.
However, the No. 6 ranking of last summer's Popular Songs on Billboard's Top Indie chart tells a different story. Following close on the heels of Yo La Tengo's second, grimier stab at the fakebook concept, garage-covers album Fuckbook (released under YLT's mythologized moniker Condo Fucks), Popular Songs focuses heavily on the pop paradigm, but from nearly every angle YLT has taken over the years.
Likely the perfect document of a near-perfect band, this album does more than most to reveal the amazingly flexible musicianship that defines YLT. Funky soul, crooning R&B gems, contemplative adult pop and a bit of skronky bliss just offer a few highlights.
McNew has his own theory for how Yo La Tengo manages to be so many things all at once.
"We try not to demystify it, I guess," he says. "There's something that's really fun to think that, I don't know, maybe it's magic. And I'll think, 'Yeah, sure, it's magic' [and] I'm fine with that."
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