Yo La Tengo – Extra Painful

Since Yo La Tengo launched a reissue campaign ostensibly to celebrate its thirtieth year as a band, it’s a bit odd to start with their sixth release, one that’s barely old enough to drink. The choice of Painful has its logic, though – the 1993 album was the trio’s first on Matador Records, its first with longtime producer Roger Moutentot, and it marked the point at which James McNew ended a Spinal Tap-esque run of revolving bassists. Still, frontman Ira Kaplan’s claim that anyone preferring earlier material is “wrong” criminally shortchanges the absolute brilliance of tracks “Barnaby, Hardly Working” and “Drug Test” from 1989’s President Yo La Tengo and the clicking-on-nearly-all-cylinders breakthrough of 1992’s May I Sing With Me (which also credits McNew, although he wasn’t yet integral to the process).

Painful isn’t Yo La Tengo’s finest album but rather the front end of a remarkable mid-90s run; the trio continued to hone its attack on Electr-O-Pura and ultimately, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. It is, however, YLT’s first truly pivotal album – a coherent statement of artistic intent, and one containing the DNA that presaged the acknowledged stylistic shift of 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out.

Other Painful firsts: the emergence of drummer Georgia Hubley’s unschooled yet gently beguiling voice as a full-on asset (the dreamy “Nowhere Near” is all the evidence you need), and the establishment of an album-closing, slowly unfurling drone/jam (in this case, “I Heard You Looking”) as a band trademark. The mastery of somewhat kitschy yet totally irresistible retro-soul nuggets would emerge a couple discs later, but in their place Painful featured a pair of forays into the shoegaze tones (“Double Dare,” “From a Motel 6”) then dominating the overseas conversation. Ironically, genre icon Kevin Shields would offer a remix of YLT’s “signature hit” “Autumn Sweater” a few years later.

Somehow, a band that’s already delivered multiple discs of outtakes and B-sides was able to unearth enough bonus material from the era to exceed the proper album’s 50-minute length – speaking to both YLT’s archivist tendencies and their incredibly fertile ’90s run. The demo versions here hew closely to Painful‘s finished products, indicating that the trio had a clear vision of where they were heading and had hammered out the details through a regular diet of freewheeling NYC gigs. The harder-edged, breakneck-paced unreleased tracks (“Smart Window,” “Tunnel Vision”) prove the band hadn’t abandoned its aggro side but rather tabled it in service of an aesthetic choice. The acoustic “Big Day Coming” demonstrates how a song already appearing twice on the proper album can still house further valuable permutations, and the nine-minute live take of “I Heard You Looking” is an ideal reminder of how YLT can find ways to wring more glory from even their already extended jams. Finally, the inclusion of the sinister-sounding “Shaker,” a non-LP single, reveals nuances that the original 7-inch was unable to convey.

1991 may have been The Year Punk Broke, but Yo La Tengo had plenty to do with the broader indie breakthrough a few years later. Most music fans are well aware of Kaplan/Hubley/McNew’s contributions but after two decades a tutorial may be in order. And for those already on board, Extra Painful offers both a nice reminder and some worthwhile annotations.

Yo La Tengo
Extra Painful