Yo La Tengo — Discography Exploration

Matador Records mainstays Yo La Tengo are a band of lovers, purveyors of the dark shades of the romantic...

I realized today that Yo La Tengo, since Painful at least, have never released a 'bad' LP. Indeed, James, Ira, and Georgia are a rare wellspring, a restorative 'pale', of ethical sociality—deeply attuned to each other's beings, truly committed to learning, constantly, what it means to *be* together: and how that kind of collectivity is always about exploration. I've spent the better part of the last few months diving into, and deeply savoring, their material, and while I'm hesitant to ever name a "favorite band", YLT might just be the group, in the history of contemporary music, I most admire. A trio of remarkable human beings unafraid to *show* themselves as human beings—always at once fun and playful, brooding and dynamic—and most of all, as others have commented, lovers, of both music and each other, down to the core. Or should I say: Straight down to the bitter end.

Studio albums are listed first—followed by EPs and compilations.

Yo La Tengo - And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out

While seemingly more "accessible" than any of Yo La Tengo's previous LPs, "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out" is actually one of the most formless and elusive releases in the Hoboken, NJ band's catalog—yet one that deeply rewards repeat listens.

"And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out" is a dreamy underworld. A place in which to drown. Reverb cloaks Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley's voices until their croons are so faraway, so vulnerable, that they seem to risk their very own corruption. The occasional bass note trembles as if to presage a desperate implosion.

It's odd, for these words—"corruption", "implosion", "unease"—seem as much native to this LP as do the more overt "love-worn", "euphoric", or "blissful". This is not a Platonic record: that is, a record that worships the purity of the dream as a foil, distinct and isolated, from reality. Rather this is a Deleuzian record: it worships the dream only insofar as the dream is confusion, interruption, transgression, dread. "A primary falseness", as it were. How the buoyancy of "You Can Have It All" molds into the generalized melancholy of "Tears Are In Your Eyes", and finally into the abrasion of "Cherry Chapstick" and the intoxicating promise of its refrain: "there's a girl with cherry chapstick and nothing more". But this image, suddenly, is rendered "lurid"—that promised face folds inwards, the limbs buckle, flare—and you're thrust into a new kind of dream-space: the chaos of untamed imagination, collision, blackout. Awoken gently with "From Black to Blue": inquisitive, reaching back, trying to explain your own blindness, reckoning with your own stupor.

Read more: https://www.albumoftheyear.org/user/pressrg/album/357-and-then-nothing-turned-itself-inside-out/
Yo La Tengo - Summer Sun
Summer Sun, like its album cover might suggest, hardly sounds "summery"; there is nothing bright or chipper about this LP, even if that's what YLT intended. Tracks like "Beach Party Tonight" sound more like solitary, moody washouts, where melody becomes totally subordinated to tone. Indeed, I've heard critics call "And Then Nothing..." YLT's "tone poem", but that actually applies even more aptly here, lending Summer Sun a focus that makes its subtlety—particularly Georgia's enchanted vocal performances—all the more affecting. And while the songwriting here isn't as consistent as on YLT's last few LPs, it's frequently just as stunning, as on the enveloping "Little Eyes", the slyly-shifting pacing of "Today is the Day", or the pleading and unabashedly vulnerable "Take Care". For me, then, Summer Sun is not a record to play much in the sun at all: but curled up in my bed, late at night, watching the shadows play off the wall.

Favourites: "Beach Party Tonight", "Little Eyes", "Season of the Shark", "Today is the Day", "Tiny Birds", "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float", "Winter A-Go-Go", "Moonrock Mambo", "Let's Be Still", "Take Care".
Least favorite: "Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo"
Yo La Tengo - There's a Riot Going On
There's a Riot Going On feels like an improvised, gentle reclamation of the word "lethargic" in the most enveloping and enchanting way... As usual, though, calling this record "boring" or "homogeneous" betrays a lack of attentive listening, or attunement to the subtlety with which the group is working. One of the best things about the enigmatic title of this piece, which YLT coyly refuse to denotatively explain away, is, to me, its suggestion that riot and revolution are not always loud, aggressive, masculine acts of assertion... But that they just as often, just as crucially, incorporate introspection, critical thinking, and friendship. And that's precisely what I love about YLT as a whole: the way each of these impulses is able to so gracefully contain, suggest, or allude to its complement—how neither impulse is essentialized to the point where the other is effaced.

YLT for President! ♥

Favorites: Shades of Blue, She May, She Might, Ashes, Dream Dream Away, Shortwave, Let's Do It Wrong, What Chance Have I Got, Forever.
Yo La Tengo - Electr-O-Pura
While not as stunningly dramatic as Painful, 1995's Electr-O-Pura embraces a more pronounced diversity of multi-dimensional songwriting: sliding from subtle, yet raucous guitar workouts to quietly intense balladry (often all within the same track), as if in graceful enactment of its collage-like cover art. Its sense of balance, pacing, and transition are near flawless. It's also the first YLT album in which Ira and Georgia's relationship commands the most lyrical attention—a reflective dialogue seemingly worked out in real time.

Favourites: "Decora", "The Hour Grows Late", "Pablo and Andrea", "The Ballad of Red Buckets", "Don't Say a Word (Hot Chicken #2)", "(Straight Down to the) Bitter End", "My Heart's Reflection"
Least favourite: "Tom Courtenay"
Yo La Tengo - The Sounds of the Sounds of Science
Opening and closing tracks are among YLT's finest atmospheric excursions...
Yo La Tengo - I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One
Despite clearly paling in comparison both to its predecessor and successor, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One manages to offer a surprisingly varied mix of beautifully rendered ballads, noise rocks anthems, and instrumental guitar odysseys. It's equally gentle ("Center of Gravity", "Return to Hot Chicken", "Green Arrow") and plangent ("Sugarcube", "We're An American Band")—never failing to be carefully and lovingly exploratory.

Favorites: Damage, Sugarcube, Return to Hot Chicken, Moby Octopad, One PM Again, Green Arrow, Center of Gravity, We're An American Band, My Little Corner of the World
Least favorites: Spec Bebop (its extended runtime just doesn't feel justified to me, and usually leaves me feeling drained)
Yo La Tengo - Stuff Like That There
Like all of YLT's best projects, Stuff Like That There burns bright with a warm and organic tone. If it's relaxed in concept, it's as emotionally potent and sincerely expressed as any of the band's most acclaimed work.

To listen is to stumble upon a gleaming gem that is nothing more than the core of mutual-trust and love, always itself evolving, that defines the project of Yo La Tengo. It's a return for the band—a return of guitarist Dave Schramm, a return of old tracks, a return of the Fakebook idea—that Feels Like Going Home again. Like stumbling, again, across my childhood bedroom: not a reinvention, necessarily, but a way for the past to recontextualize the present, to remerge and mark a different way of expression. Here, we find ourselves lost within an intimate and sustained meaning-event...

In other words, I don't mind if this LP's version of "Ballad of the Red Buckets" doesn't differ too much from the Electr-O-Pura version: because to lament the fact of recurrence is to ignore the new affective resonances of this recontextualization. It's a bricolage of known elements in a new way, imbuing them with new and enigmatic meaning, not necessarily in their performance or rendition, but at the edges of their intelligibility... I get something different out of "Red Buckets", here, precisely because I'm immersed in a different atmosphere, because it runs over onto a different wellspring.

Favorites: My Heart's Not In It, Rickety, All Your Secrets, The Ballad of Red Buckets, Awhileaway, Somebody's In Love.
Least favorite: Friday I'm In Love
Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs
While belied, in large part, by its final two tracks, which feel devoid of substance or central matter—the former with its reverb-soaked guitar noodling, the latter a feedback storm that somehow feels anything but driving and purposive—Popular Songs is an otherwise well-executed LP that retreads a lot of ground for Yo La Tengo—standout "By Two's" could easily have been featured on And Then Nothing...—but that nevertheless offers a series of grounded and charming songs that would establish some important motifs for the group: with lines like "And if we can't stop a restlessness night, we won't give up without a fight... Before the riot", on "All Your Secrets" presaging the title of their 2018 LP. The sequence from "If It's True" to "When It's Dark" is among my favorite three-strong stretches on any YLT album, and James's vocals on the second track of this series, "I'm On My Way", are some of his most delightful. "Nothing to Hide" is pure, unashamed noise pop, and "More Stars Than...", while occasionally a little static, is a clear-eyed and brooding "finale", as it were—or, at least, what I think should be a finale.

While perhaps not as outstandingly remarkable, unique, or poised as YLT's best records—feeling, indeed, like a collection of songs, more than an LP—Popular Songs is nevertheless a sweet and consistently delightful project, even if it sometimes feels like YLT is just going through the motions, here.

Standouts: By Two's, I'm On My Way
Other Favorites: Nothing to Hide, Avalon Or Someone Very Similar, If It's True, When It's Dark, All Your Secrets, More Stars Than There Are In Heaven
Least favorites: Here To Fall, Periodically Double or Triple, The Fireside, And the Glitter is Gone
Yo La Tengo - We Have Amnesia Sometimes
Pulsing, amorphous incipience... More and more, I find myself returning to this record as a site of spiritual reclamation, a way to reckon with listener fatigue, to think about music as improvised collectivity-building and affective attunement. And, indeed, I feel more deeply attuned to the space around me—feel that my very body is more acutely inhabitable—whensoever I experience We Have Amnesia Sometimes...

Favorite: Ira searches for the slide, sort of (Friday)
Least favorite: Georgia considers the two blue ones (Thursday)
Yo La Tengo - Fakebook
At its best, Fakebook is a decidedly loving, freewheeling, and affecting record—transformative. The YLT originals, especially the opener "Can't Forget", stand out as particularly endearing.

Favorites: Can't Forget, Speeding Motorcycle, The Summer, The One to Cry, Andalucia, What Can I Say
Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
For some reason, I tend to draw a line of demarcation between Summer Sun—my favorite YLT album and what I consider the culmination of their "classic" period—and this record, which feels emblematic of a new, regenerative "late-stage" in the trio's career. I think I feel tempted to do this, in part, because I lack a sense of the exigency of this record qua an aesthetic package; it doesn't seem to broach new ground for YLT in the same way that their "classic records" continually did, each LP yielding to the next in a serial progression, with ever the more subtle, mature, and gorgeous results. Instead, I Will Beat Your Ass feels like a simulacrum of some of those older records: it's diverse, sure, but almost obdurately: its splattering of different styles and experiments hinge on playfulness for its own sake, despite the often meditative or even danceable charm that many cuts here present. But it's a break from the band's artistic trajectory and, as such, feels comparatively unavailing. In other words, it feels like YLT is going through the motions here—and doing it well, certainly—but there's a lack of specific identity or emergent affective resonance. In that way, Beat Your Ass is that rare record where the whole feels genuinely less inspired than the sum of its parts.

(As you can tell from my score, though, I still think this is a great record).

Favorites: Beanbag Chair, I Feel Like Going Home, The Race Is On Again, Sometimes I Don't Get You, Daphnia, Song for Mahilia
Least Favorite: I Should Have Known Better, Watch Out for Me Ronnie
Yo La Tengo - They Shoot, We Score
Honeycombed with more than just a few gems, this cleverly-titled YLT soundtrack compilation, and yet its "film-by-film" sequencing flattens the front-to-back tonal experience; the first six "Old Joy" tracks, in particular, float by in a balmy, bleary breeze, feeling most vital as solitary compositions, bookended by silence. In that way, They Shoot, We Score is remarkably illusive, but also strangely inviting: each track marks an admission to an all-too-brief throughway. The perfect record, then, to mine for covert gems. The brevity of these pieces, in their own way, lends them a precariousness that no other release in YLT's discography, I think, really captures: an atrophy that well suits the accompanying films' explorations of contemporary disillusionment, in all its drifting languor...

Favorites: Path to Springs, Driving Home, Leaving Home (Alt.), Madeline, Aftermath (Outtake), The Phantom Who Haunts Broadway, Game Time, Buckner's Boner, Isolation Tank, Panic in Central Park (Outtake), Wizard's Sleeve
Least favorite: Pharaoh Blues
Yo La Tengo - Fade
In some ways, it seems Fade is one of the most high-profile records from my favorite indie darlings, Yo La Tengo. Its glossy, sheer album art speaks a lot to the record, which feels instrumentally polished and hazy, indeed; but just as the tree on the cover seems to have lost its sense of organic grounding and place, so too does the music here feel a little too lost in its own slickness and gentle, colorful layering. Unlike most other YLT records, I'm not really able to discern James, Georgia, and Ira's playing, individually: they're lost underneath a sea of horns and effects.

The record really puts its worst foot forward with "Ohm", the closest thing to an arena rock anthem that YLT have ever put to tape. The track blends Georgia, James, and Ira's voices into a kind of muddied alloy that lacks the distinctive characteristics of either of the thee vocalists' tone. Meanwhile, the noisy feedback that made tracks like "From a Motel 6" or "Cherry Chapstick" so thrilling is markedly quite low in the mix, feeling only vague and supplemental. This feedback does surface, eventually, on "Paddle Forward", but it's a little too late to save the LP's disappointing first half.

On most of these tracks, James's grounding bassline, too, seems conspicuously absent. Take "Is That Enough", with its lilting, waltz-able melodies, but the trio are a little too over-enthusiastic, yet again, with the track's string flourishes, and its chorus borders, just a touch, on the saccharine. Again, I'm quite underwhelmed with Ira's vocal delivery, here and throughout Fade, which feels tuneless and lethargic—and not in the affectively resonant way of past records.

Read More: https://www.albumoftheyear.org/user/pressrg/album/4498-fade/

Favorites: Paddle Forward, Cornelia and Jane, The Point of It
Least Favorites: Ohm, Two Trains
Yo La Tengo - Tom Courtenay
I'm impressed yet again, this time by a noisy, grimy Dead C cover and the trio's signature balladeering, in prime form here.
Yo La Tengo - Shaker
Three excellent ballads from the Painful recording sessions: the title track, dissonant and crunchy, clearly inspired by the almost-spoken word vocal style of Slint; the droning and heavenly For Shame of Doing Wrong, Georgia backed by not much more than a slide guitar and an airy drone; and What She Wants, an acoustic original, much in the vein of Fakebook, but this time more fully realized with a subtle horn arrangement and triumphant chorus.

Favorites: For Shame of Doing Wrong, What She Wants
Yo La Tengo - Sleepless Night
The waltzing sway of Roll On Babe, the controlled brood of It Takes a Lot to Laugh, the serous and bobbing Bleeding—its heavy reverb, discriminating slide guitars, and gently-mixed, whirring feedback a tasteful and improved reintroduction of the ca. 2013 Fade sound—Ira's spare whisper-croon on the touching Smile A Little Smile For Me—three covers, one original, two sing by Georgia, two by Ira, and all sutured together by James indelible playing... All essential, poignant ballads; all more than generous fodder for an insomniac like me. The first two trucks, alas, are more forgettable, though still welcome, as always, for their eclecticism and (temporal and tonal) breadth.
Yo La Tengo - Camp Yo La Tengo
While "Tom Courtney" benefits greatly from its more stripped-back rendition, here, the abridged "(Thin) Blue Line Swinger" is slightly weakened, but in such a way, I should add, that only gives me greater appreciation for the original. "Mr. Ameche Plays the Stranger", meanwhile, is a notable meditative reverie that, while slightly vacuous, would nevertheless presage much of YLT later ambient excursions, even if it doesn't quite match those later songs' quality.
Yo La Tengo - Today Is the Day!
I love the reinterpretation of the title track, one of the many highlights from Summer Sun, and while a few tracks (Needle in the Times, the new acoustic rendition of Cherry Chapstick) are just a touch too tepid, exuberant double-reed horns from William Parker on Outsmartener and the squeeling, full-blooded Style of the Times call back to the ICHTHBAO era and help keep things afloat. I can see why these cuts were relegated to B-sides, though—the songwriting just isn't as spine-tingling as the best YLT material can be—but, that said, Today Is the Day! is an interesting crossroads for the band, a small, playful, and self-referential punctuation mark to close out their "classic period".

Favorites: Today Is the Day, Dr. Crash
Yo La Tengo - From A Motel 6
Aside from the obviously-awesome title track, Nuticia is the real highlight here, and the main reason to return to this overlooked EP.

Favorites: From a Motel 6, Nuticia,
Least favorite: From a Motel 6 (Remix)
Yo La Tengo - Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs: 1985-2003
*This is a rating/review exclusively for the 3rd CD in this compilation; for my thoughts on YLT's previously released material, check out my reviews of their respective LP/EPs.

A worthwhile bonus disc of rarities and outtakes, featuring an eclectic mix of styles and covers, all within the aegis of what now feels like a living history of a very human band.

Favorites: Decora (acoustic), Blue-Green Arrow, Pencil Test, Mr. Ameche, Magnet, Almost True, Tom Courtney (acoustic), Dreaming, Weather Shy, Magnet.
Least favorite: Autumn Sweater (Kevin Shields remix)
Yo La Tengo - Saturday
Enough can't be said about the brooding, sinister "Saturday", a track which unfurls around the subtle traces of a plodding 808, as if it was following the path marked by its own drawing shadow. Remarkably, the subsequent suite of "Danelectro" compositions, delightfully out of order, are of similar stature, nebulous instrumental pieces that layer gracefully their keyboard drone and stringed melodies. The serous production—blurry and rough-around-the-edges—stands out from Saturday's taut precision, oddly spontaneous and filmy, a window into the magic of the practice-space. Georgia's brushed drum-work and James's quavering bass oscillate in tone, volume, and relative arrangement in the mix, while the vulnerable phrasings of Ira's reverb-heavy guitar, occasional finger-slips and all, feels ever the more attuned, for its imperfections, to the pensive atmosphere, which seems itself a commentary, in the manner of Inside-Out, of the ebbing, dynamic momentums and failures of being-together: not merely a serialization of tones or instruments, but of human beings in the studio, learning, together, the very beauty of what it means to *be* together—the restraint, as much as the abandon; the terror, as much as the delight.
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January 2021 Playlist