Yo La Tengo

New York (and John) Rockers:
Yo La Tengo Dials It Down for a Fakebook Sequel

Here’s a new yardstick by which to measure Yo La Tengo’s longevity and resilience. One of the band’s first releases was a contribution to the 1986 compilation album Luxury Condos (Coming to Your Neighborhood Soon). That title was a dart at the encroaching gentrification that endangered the idyllic artist scene in Hoboken, just across the river from New York City. Developers long ago won that battle – the revered club Maxwell’s is now a sports bar, go-to record store Pier Platters shuttered its doors a decade earlier – but YLT’s husband/wife fulcrum of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley remain firmly ensconced in the burg, both sticking to their guns and challenging themselves with ongoing evolution.

Here’s another yardstick, courtesy of Kaplan: “When we recorded Fakebook we hadn’t even met James yet.”

James McNew has been the third member of Yo La Tengo for over twenty years. Still, longtime fans will remember him as the man who put an end to the band’s Spinal Tap-esque revolving door of bassists. And Fakebook is the atypical but much-loved 1990 album that showcased the band’s still nascent subdued side.

Twenty-five years later, Yo La Tengo revisits that format – almost to a t – on Stuff Like That There. The new album rides the same unplugged vibe, built upon a framework of diverse and mostly obscure covers, rounded out by a couple of YLT originals (“Rickety” sounds like the keeper of the two newbies) and a pair of hushed reworkings from the trio’s own catalog. It’s also something of an Old Home Week, given the returns of Dave Schramm and Gene Holder (guitarist and producer on the original Fakebook, respectively).

“There was a certain aspect going into this record, wrapping my head around doing something as calculated as a sequel – we just don’t approach things that way,” Kaplan explains. “We typically go in and start playing and the record just takes shape, very naturally. Once we made the decision, the more touchstones we could bring in from the original record the more it made sense to me.”

Onetime dB’s mainstay Holder produced a couple of early YLT albums – and actually moonlighted as the band’s final pre-McNew bassist – but the ties extend even further back. The dB’s were the de facto house band at the short-lived but revered New York Rocker magazine, where Kaplan enjoyed a brief career as a rock critic. Holder contributed a bit of electric bass on Fakebook, but this is one area where Stuff Like That There diverges. The new disc features only upright bass, played by McNew – who hadn’t touched the instrument before. “It’s not like we’re getting an upright touring bassist and have James do handclaps,” Kaplan deadpans.

“I had never played upright before January 2015,” McNew later elaborated. “I’m still hard at work on learning how to play it – I’m gonna be working on that for quite a while. It’s completely different than electric, but it has given me instant insight on the invention of the electric bass – what a great idea that was!”

Schramm has a long history with Yo La Tengo as well. On paper he’s an original member, with a full band credit as guitarist on debut LP Ride the Tiger as well as the preceding 7-inch and Luxury Condos track. “He was the most accomplished person in the band then,” concedes Kaplan. “I don’t think that’s changed, but hopefully the gulf isn’t as wide as it was back then.” According to Kaplan, however, the plan was always for Dave to simply help get YLT out of the starting gate before turning to his own eponymous project. “Like so many people we played with in that time, they had other agendas – which we knew about. It wasn’t like we had a big fight or anything.” Schramm returned to the fold for Fakebook with new bandmate Allan Greller in tow to handle upright bass duties. Schramm reprises his role on Stuff Like That There and will also do so on the ensuing tour, where he’ll be the only one playing electric (and steel) guitar.

You’d think the Fakebook/Stuff Like That There approach would stem from Yo La Tengo’s stints playing on-air listener requests during the annual fundraiser for iconic freeform radio station WFMU (which in its own show of resilience managed to outlive the college that once housed it). However Kaplan indicates that’s not the case, that the albums are really the product of band curation. “Typically on FMU we get more requests than we can handle, so we do this kind of clearinghouse medley at the end,” he explains. “I think people have learned which songs we’re more likely to do, so (the playlist) doesn’t get that current. If they pick a song by Katy Perry we’re less likely to be able to fake it.”

For an exception that proves the rule, though, track down their unreleased rendition of Outkast’s “Hey Ya.” “That one was particularly good. There were a couple of years where one of Georgia’s nieces would come with us and do backing vocals. And she knew ‘Hey Ya’ almost as well as (YLT’s resident pop culture sponge) James. So at one point he yelled one of the call-and-response vocals to us, and got kind of a shrug. We could play it but couldn’t sing anything beyond the chorus – James just feeds us the chords really quickly. But the niece hopped in and saved the day.”

Stuff’s one modern rock nod comes in the form of The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” “That one has almost an FMU aspect to it – we’ve played it live twice. We just decided to learn it and played it years ago at a rock show and that was that. Then once we let ourselves be talked into taking requests on a radio station in London [they typically reserve the routine for WFMU], and that was one of the requests. Just because we’d played it once years before doesn’t mean we remembered it, so it still had that off-the-cuff, cobbled-together aspect. But because of the setting the version was a lot less rock, and it just kind of stuck with me.” For obvious reasons “Friday” is the new track getting airplay, and on the surface it can seem a bit gimmicky. But Hubley’s sublime reading and Schramm and Kaplan’s intertwining acoustic guitars deliver a true reinvention, perhaps more countrified than their take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (purportedly by way of Al Green).

Kaplan and McNew have amazing memories not only for musical chestnuts, but also for local flavor. I can recall two separate shows where they’ve taken good-natured digs at the Masquerade and its notorious bass thump bleed-through into Heaven. Stuff is precisely the sort of record they’d never tour at the Masquerade, if it were still on their radar. “I know we played there twice – we opened for the Breeders there, and we headlined a show,” recalls Kaplan, who is well aware of the club’s recent challenges (perhaps the Old Fourth Ward is showing traces of ’80s Hoboken?) and harbors no noticeable ill will.

Given the New York Mets’ recent resurgence, I couldn’t resist asking inveterate baseball fan Kaplan for his impressions. Given his franchise’s legacy of disappointments he remains guarded, although we spoke before the Mets blew past the Washington Nationals to claim first place. “It reminds me of the teams when I was young, where the hitters are so obviously not good enough, but the pitching is – like in ’69 or ’73.” I recall Kaplan once championing his Mets in between-song Atlanta banter when a fan shouted “95!” (the year of the Braves’ sole championship). To which Kaplan promptly retorted “What – is that the number of times Bobby Cox has beaten his wife?” (Hubley dutifully followed with a rim shot.) What I don’t recall is the band emerging for an encore at the Cotton Club regaled in John Rocker jerseys, as Kaplan gleefully recounted.

Along with a biting wit, Yo La Tengo has avoided the tedium of the record-tour cycle by pursuing myriad unconventional projects. There’s the Hubley-fronted Little Black Egg Big Band, ongoing soundtrack work including a collaboration on a “live documentary” about Buckminster Fuller, and a recurring Kaplan/Schramm gig as the backing band for women from the Girl Group era. “A lot of these things are ridiculous amounts of work if they’re a one-off, but that doesn’t mean they’re not rewarding,” Kaplan qualifies. And let’s not forget their foray into lo-fi garage/punk covers on 2009’s cheekily titled Fuckbook as the Condo Fucks, complete with invented hagiography.

Another way the band has kept things fresh is by enlisting different producers for each of their past three discs. While the Holder move reflects a return to past comforts, the choice of John McEntire to helm 2013’s excellent Fade seemed a more left field choice. “Maybe it looked that way from a little further away but we’ve known John for a long, long time – we were crammed in a van together when he was in Seam [1992 or so] and we’ve played with Tortoise and the Sea and Cake many times. I think the thing that inspired us in particular was the Teenage Fanclub album Man Made. I love Teenage Fanclub but I think that’s a special record by them, the combo of the two. The question to me is why it took us so long to ask him.”

Late last year YLT marked its 30th anniversary as a band with Extra Painful, a deluxe reissue of the 1993 album that started the trio’s long run with Matador Records, its first with McNew as a bona fide member, and the first of a three-album mid-90s run (culminating in consensus career high point I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One) that cemented the band’s status atop the indie firmament. Kaplan’s not promising a continuing stream of such reissues, though. “It’s a bit deceptive but a tremendous about of work went into that. You’d think because it’s a reissue it might be easier, but that’s far from the case. Now we know what we’re getting into.”

Lest anyone conclude that the somnolent tones of Stuff Like That There signals a comfortable drift into middle age, consider the following:

* The album after Fakebook featured a nine-minute track called “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss”;
* After many assumed YLT had permanently mellowed 15 years ago with And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, they soon followed with a raucous cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” and the wonderfully noisy I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, perhaps the most inspired record ever made by a band in its third decade.

Sure enough, Kaplan assures me they’re at work on some feedback-drenched noise excursions for a project with their heavy psych pals Bardo Pond, editing hour-long jams down to a manageable 10-20 minutes. “We have a backlog of sounds, not songs,” he says.

In late August, in an inspired yet backhanded promotional gambit YLT served as the house band for NPR’s Morning Edition, providing live intro/outro music for the news segments of an outlet that’s often a punch line for ossified dad rock. Not only did the trio barely acknowledge their imminent “product,” but they favored abrasive improv jams (notably a noisy extension of Electr-o-Pura’s “Tom Courtenay”) that likely caused reflux of more than a few commuter coffees. Seems the contrarian streak and sense of humor remain firmly in place.

Or consider this allmusic.com review of Fakebook: “Yo La Tengo has never made another record like it, and perhaps never will.” If that’s not throwing down the gauntlet, I don’t know what is.

Photo by Dusdin Condren.