Quiet Is the New Loud
Where does a trio of venerable indie-rock icons go when OD'ing isn't an option but the world is simply too annoying to tolerate any longer? Somewhere quiet, perhaps, a place to escape the often tiresome adulation of the hipster-cool, record-store-clerk, high-fidelity types.
On their two most recent recordings, the oldsters of Yo La Tengo have envisioned just that -- a quiet, sunny beach, with extra emphasis on the "quiet." The sound marks a sea change for the beloved noise merchants of old. However, anyone daring to question the band on this mellow new direction may find themselves on the business end of a very irritable rejoinder.
"I wouldn't call either of those records mellow," bassist James McNew grumps when asked about the more hushed direction of this year's Summer Sun and its predecessor, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, released in 2000. "They might be quieter -- but mellow, to me, means something else. I don't like that word so much."
Semantics aside, the fact remains: Where there was once a balance between all-out noise rockers and more introspective and sensitive tracks, the scales have definitely tipped in favor of the more contemplative, subdued material. So the question is still on the table: Why have the last two records been so much quieter than what came before?
"I dunno," McNew demurs. "We've always played quietly. It's been part of pretty much every record we've made and every show we've ever played; we won't just go up and rock for an hour and a half. We can do other stuff, and similarly, all of our records have had moments that are really quiet for the last however many decades that we've been making records. It's always been a part of us, and that's part of our personality."
McNew has much to say on the progression of Yo La Tengo's sound. "When we were writing songs for And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, it took us months to realize that all of our songs were kind of like that, and we decided to follow it, because it did sound like us and it did carry our personality in it," he says. "We decided to trust it and see what else would come out rather than rethink the entire record and make 80 percent of the songs loud or whatever. I think we decided to work that way, following what comes out of us when we are making our music. I don't feel like it was a conscious shift or anything. In fact, it doesn't even feel that different to me. It just feels natural."
At this particular moment in the Yo La Tengo creative continuum, "natural" means toying with lots of shimmery textures and funky new sounds. Summer Sun's opening track, "Beach Party Tonight," which features light-fingered drumming from Georgia Hubley and sleepy vocals from her husband, Ira Kaplan, suggests a solitary evening in front of Matlock more than it does Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello boogying on a beach blanket. This mood is sustained over the course of the record, which features the same type of personal lyricism found on previous YLT outings. Summer Sun appears to be an extension of the dialogue on love and relationships between Kaplan and Hubley that was the focus of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Despite the fact that Summer Sun is tranquil, it has great energy, as evidenced by "Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo," an instrumental track that is easily the album's least laconic song, a musical battle that pits free-spirited drums against playfully aggressive guitar and keyboards. The rest of the disc is not exactly lazy, but it certainly takes its time to get where it's going. But don't dare call it mellow.
"Mellow, to me, is calm, and I don't know that I've really felt calm a day in my life," quips McNew.
Still, the record radiates calm -- all rangy guitar, honeyed harmonies and dusty rhythms. This sleepier material can be a bit problematic in a live setting. Following a recent South by Southwest showcase, in which the threesome aired several new songs from the then-unreleased Summer Sun, there was some grumbling among the rank and file who had to wait for hours in the humid, jam-packed venue to see their heroes perform a patchy set. When asked how loyal fans receive the quieter stuff, McNew is reticent.
"It seems to be tolerated," he replies. "Anywhere from tolerated to enjoyed, and I'm fine with that."
Over the course of its nineteen years of existence, Yo La Tengo has delved into its fair share of aural cross-pollination. In 1990, the band released Fakebook, which was a folksy, acoustic collection that stands in stark stylistic opposition to 1995's Electr-o-Pura, which paid homage to the British Invasion sound as well as the slowly emerging shimmery folk pop the trio now nurtures. Needless to say, Electr-o-Pura is different in many respects from the much loved I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. And so on and so forth, across the ten full-lengths and countless EPs and B-sides floating around out there since 1986. What makes these stylistic diversions and zigzags so engaging (if not a little alienating) is that Yo La Tengo's catalogue feels like the work of people who like to sit around and listen to music, and not just their own.
Music isn't the only thing they are passionate about. Although the players have stated on numerous occasions that the name of the band is meaningless -- they simply liked the way it sounded -- more than a few fans believe it's a cheeky reference to baseball. (The phrase means "I've got it" in Spanish and allegedly refers to an outfielder calling a ball hit in his direction.) Fortunately, the group's musical lifestyle has allowed it to squeeze in a little enjoyment of this other favorite pastime.
"There's a good chance that we'll be able to catch a few day games on this tour," enthuses McNew. A Mets fan along with the rest of his mates, McNew "can only hope for the best" for his beloved team.
Come to think of it, perhaps this is the trajectory for which all of us should strive: earning the right to do whatever the hell we please, both professionally and personally, and enjoying some peace and quiet along the way.
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