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Yo La Tengo isn’t just a studio band that makes impeccable recordings, but also a live act that’s always ready to kick out a compelling, sweat-soaked performance. And for anyone who’s seen Yo La Tengo on stage, the most indelible image you have of ‘em is Kaplan building up to a full-on freakout as he transforms from mild-mannered indie nerd into a holy roller rock proselytizer, bent over a guitar or banging away on the Farfisa. More like a blaring red-alert warning bell, Electr-O-Pura‘s “False Alarm” puts that live experience on record as well as any Yo La Tengo song, helping you mentally picture Kaplan becoming a man possessed trying to get just the right stabbing keyboard tone and spasmodic fit of feedback, with Hubley’s booming, primal beat heightening the intensity.
(Fakebook, 1990; “Walking Away from You” 7” single, 1991)
Few bands handle cover songs with as much care as Yo La Tengo, who often gives them the same treatment as its own music—heck, if you didn’t know any better, you’d think many of ‘em are Yo La Tengo originals. Its renditions of Daniel Johnston’s “Speeding Motorcycle” and Beat Happening’s “Cast a Shadow”, two of indie pop’s most beloved—and oft-reinterpreted—songs, are the best examples of how Yo La Tengo can take the signature works of others and make ‘em all its own. Kaplan and Hubley show their obvious affection for these cult favorites by retaining their sense of wide-eyed romance, while giving them their own twist by smoothing out their charming, rough sentimentality with more tunefulness. These covers also hearken back to a time when Yo La Tengo was a scrappy upstart, underdogs in the underground’s underground before the band attained elder-statesman status.
(And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, 2000)
The centerpiece of 2000’s mood-heavy And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, “Saturday” is Yo La Tengo’s most striking foray into something resembling electronic music. Dressing up a fairly minimalist synth-and-bass composition with pinging electronics and a syncopated drum machine beat, “Saturday” articulated the still, starry-night tone of Nothing the best, putting an emphasis on the space between sounds as much as the carefully wrought effects themselves. It’s indietronica done on Yo La Tengo’s terms, still radiating a gentle warmth and conveying an easy intimacy no matter the stylistic tweaks. And when Hubley and Kaplan harmonize, repeating—with what must be irony—the phrase “out of tune”, you wouldn’t know the difference between it and one of the duo’s acoustic confessionals.
(I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, 1997)
It was 1997’s “Autumn Sweater” that paved the way for “Saturday”, as Yo La Tengo stepped out from its wallflower perch on the former to become one of the first indie rock acts to embrace emerging electronic trends. Released as a single in advance of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, “Autumn Sweater” was a tantalizing and mysterious teaser, suggesting the possibility that YLT was heading in new directions on the album after straight-up indie classics like Painful and Electr-O-Pura. Deceptively simple, “Autumn Sweater” is still one of the best examples of groove-oriented indie rock around, built around a basic fuzzed-out keyboard pattern, plump bass lines, and, of course, the dueling drum kits. Getting remix-y with it, the “Autumn Sweater” EP augured things to come not just for Yo La Tengo’s own dabbling with dance music moods, but for rhythm-oriented trends in the genre as a whole.
The renditions of “Big Day Coming” on 1993’s Painful capture the two sides of Yo La Tengo perfectly: the more plaintive, poignant side that makes the group so cherished, and the rambunctious garage-y side that set Yo La Tengo apart from the rest of the indie pack. You can notice these two faces of Yo La Tengo just in the way Kaplan delivers the chorus: while his imperfect falsetto conveys dreamy anticipation when he slowly croons, “Now there’s a big day coming / And I can hardly wait” on the minimal, drawn-out version that opens Painful, he spits those same words out so anxiously that you’d think that day had already arrived on the bristling, raucous redux near the end of the album. Either way, “Big Day Coming” suggests Yo La Tengo must’ve known something few others did, sounding prophetic on both takes.