While most musicians don't mind getting great reviews, they're not nearly so enthusiastic about being saddled with a reputation as a so-called "critics' band." The reason? Printed praise from erudite little twerps like yours truly may be good for the ego, but it seldom translates into simoleons. Moreover, the people who actually buy their CDs, rather than receive them from record companies free of charge, often view pundits' pet bands with suspicion, lumping them with foreign films and abstract art.
So pity poor Ira Kaplan, guitarist/ organist/vocalist for Hoboken, New Jersey's own Yo La Tengo. Not only does he front a critics' band (Yo La Tengo is routinely lauded in publications large and small as a great American rock group), but he used to be a critic himself--his rock writing has appeared in publications such as the Village Voice, Trouser Press and New York Rocker, among many others. Worse, those erudite little twerps won't let Kaplan forget about his previous vocation, since his success seems to make real the fantasy about making, rather than critiquing, music that so many entertain.
To his credit, Kaplan bears this baggage with uncommon grace. Nonetheless, he's not above testiness when the inevitable questions about his journalistic past are raised. "The critic thing I really think is overstated," he says. "When too much is made of my past as a critic, I think it really undermines the contributions of everyone else in the band."
Indeed, Yo La Tengo is not simply a Kaplan forum. Most of the group's compositions are jointly credited to Kaplan, drummer/guitarist/vocalist Georgia Hubley (to whom Kaplan just happens to be married) and bassist/guitarist/vocalist James McNew, formerly of the cult band Christmas. As evidenced by the act's fine new album, Painful, its first on the Matador/Atlantic imprint, all three share a fondness for deadpan, affectless singing, lyrics that transform the mundane into the mythic (see Painful's "From a Motel 6") and a fondness for playing in a relaxed style that allows tunes to slowly spread out in all directions. Call it pseudopod rock.
This approach did not spring full-grown from Kaplan's brow. He came to it gradually, unconsciously. His career ultimately became the logical extension of his enthusiasm for rock and roll. "We're all big music fans," he notes. "That's why I did some writing and why I'm in a band--because I just love music so much."
Translating his ardor into words was never a particularly easy process for Kaplan, in spite of his impressive credits. "I think I'm a bad interviewer," he concedes, "but I tried to be as generous as I could whenever an interview was going awkwardly. Generally the people I interviewed were people whose music I really liked and cared about, and even if I was fairly inept at communicating that a lot of times, I think I had a good heart even when my tongue was tied."
Still, Kaplan came to the conclusion that he was in the wrong business, thanks to experiences such as a late- Seventies meeting of the minds with the four original members of the rock group Kiss. "They were playing D.C., and I got sent down there," he recalls. "I wasn't a big fan of theirs, but the idea of going to see them and their show was irresistible--and besides, I had a good friend who lived down there. So I stayed up all night the night before the interview talking to my friend, and when I sat down with Kiss I could barely talk. They really lost patience with me and started talking among themselves about shooting heroin into their eyeballs and things like that. It was completely foul and hilarious. And then the hilarity slowed down and Gene Simmons says, `Ask us another question.' I went, `Aaaaaaah,' and they exploded with laughter. Afterward, their manager made a half-joking remark about buying the tape of the interview from me."
Within a few years the tapes Kaplan was selling bore the Yo La Tengo moniker. The act released its first single, "The River of Water/A House Is Not a Motel," in 1985, and followed with a string of subsequent EPs and appearances on compilation discs. The first two Yo La Tengo albums, 1986's Ride the Tiger and 1987's New Wave Hot Dogs (both on the Coyote label), were erratic affairs, but 1989's President Yo La Tengo showed far more signs of continuity and inspiration. Next, Kaplan and company issued Fakebook, a recording on the Bar None imprint dominated by gentle, acoustic versions of songs by other artists the bandmembers happened to like. Since those songs included obscure tracks from the Kinks, John Cale, NRBQ and the Flying Burrito Brothers (critics' bands all), reviewers went crazy for the platter. "There's a frequent question about doing another record like it," Kaplan notes, "but I always wonder how. I think it would be harder to re-create something than to just do something else."
As a result, Yo La Tengo moved on to another new record label (Alias) and produced May I Sing With Me, a melange of rocking and droning tracks that again garnered positive attention and marked bassist McNew's permanent entry into the band. Kaplan, though, has mixed feelings about the effort. "Of all our records, that's the one we'd like to have back," he reveals. "We had a real backlog of songs when we made it, and had been playing them live for a long time--maybe too long. I don't think it's more than the sum of its parts."
The spontaneity missing from May I Sing With Me is present in abundance on Painful. The disc is not exactly up-tempo--"Big Day Coming," the tenth of eleven songs, is the first with a beats-per-minute count fast enough to inspire dancing--but it creates an indelible mood. Sometimes atmospheric, sometimes violent, the disc is a head trip that won't make you feel dumber for having taken it.
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Clearly, Yo La Tengo isn't taking any shortcuts to commercial prosperity, but Kaplan insists that the mildly esoteric quality of his work doesn't mean he's above trying to reach as many music buyers as possible. "We'd like to sell more records," he says. "And we make videos and do all sorts of things that aren't necessarily expressions of our artistic sensibilities."
These players have also signed up to open for better-known groups, willingly accepting the limitations of their role in exchange for the prospect of reaching people who might not be familiar with them. But Kaplan admits that being second on the bill can sometimes be frustrating. A Denver show that Yo La Tengo was set to play alongside the Sundays is a prime example.
"We had just played Minneapolis, and we left while the Sundays were still on because we had only one day to get to Denver from there," he says. "We were flying, trying to get there as fast as we could. And when we got to Sterling, we called the club to confirm what time our loading was, and they said the show was off--the Sundays had canceled because the bass player's mother had gotten sick. We had to plead with them to just let us play before turning around."
The club's owner complied, and the members of Yo La Tengo were given a couple of hundred bucks to split for their efforts. Who says being a critics' band doesn't pay off?
Teenage Fanclub, with Yo La Tengo and the Simpeltones. 8 p.m. Tuesday, February 8, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax, $11, 290-TIXS or 830-2525.