Why Yo La Tengo is one of the best in the game

Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley.

Yo La Tengo drummer Georgia Hubley.

Yo La Tengo is one of those bands that has been around for so long, it kind of seems like they’ve always been here (you know, if you’ve heard of them at all). The Hoboken, NJ group has existed since 1984, and has had its core lineup of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew in place since 1992. In that time, the group has built an impressive catalog of records and an equally important amount of indie credibility. Throughout their long career, Yo La Tengo has done exactly what Yo La Tengo has wanted to do, incorporating noise rock, British invasion, folk, ambient music and myriad other influences into something unpredictable and very difficult to describe.

For my money, the best entry point for this well-worthwhile group is their 1997 record  I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.  This is by no means the group’s only good (or even great) album, but I feel it best encapsulates the blend of tenderness and power that is present in Yo La Tengo’s best work. Though the band has generally always (with a few sporadic exceptions) been a trio, the group is able to kick up quite a bit of noise without the aid of additional members. Part of the reason for that is the powerful and layered guitar work of Ira Kaplan. Listen to the noise-assault of “Sugarcube.”

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Now compare that with the low-key beauty of “Damage.” Kaplan’s guitar work can be sparse and chunky to equal effect.

A lot of credit has to go to the rhythm section in this group. Georgia Hubley’s metronomic drumming and James Mcnew’s sure-footed bass work allow songs to be more than just showcases for guitar wankery. Rhythm is so important to the group’s style (particularly in the more drone-y songs like Moby Octopad”), and these two are some of the best in the game.

Check out the steady work (and McNew’s lead vocal) on my favorite track from this album, “Stockholm Syndrome.”

i Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is a fairly long album with some song running times that stretch the patience a bit. But it’s still an album that I recommend listening to straight through. In a way, Yo La Tengo tells the story of 30 years worth of history through its music. Rather than try styles and abandon them, the group just added more and more threads to their unique tapestry.  Partially due to remaining on an independent label through their entire existence, Yo La Tengo has had the kind of enviable career that most artists can barely conceptualize. Kaplan, Hurley and McNew have a great live show, a devoted fan base, and a vital creative energy that shows no sign of slowing down almost twenty years after this recording.

Some other great songs:

“My Little Corner of the World”

“Moby Octopad”

“Autumn Sweater”

As a bonus, here’s their great cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda.”


Photo credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel

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One comment to “Why Yo La Tengo is one of the best in the game”
  1. I’m with you on this one. YLT is a national treasure. They are sort of like Rock’s Archivists, since there are very few styles they haven’t given a go at one point or another.

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