“Keep doing what you’re doing”— the platitude encapsulates the contradiction at the heart of Yo La Tengo’s philosophy. The Hoboken trio has been making music their way for over three decades, covering avant-garde jazz and faux lounge kitsch, tricking critics with erroneous run times against track listings, and naming songs after their favored chicken joint. Concurrently, “keep doing what you’re doing” is antithetical to their approach. Yo La Tengo are continuously reinventing, allowing indie rock’s gentrification to lap at their All-Stars gently but never wetting their jeans—“incremental self-revision”, Jesse Jarnow calls it. Their music, like their origin story, is digressive. Nowhere was it more masterful and influential as on the beating heart of their discography, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One.
“I wanna send this out to Richie Van / In his thrift store corner of the world,” Kaplan murmurs on “The Hour Grows Late”. While crate digging during the Painful tour, he had a chance encounter with the unremembered resort singer’s covers album, and it instantly struck a Casio chord with Ira and the rest of the band. Yo La Tengo eulogized it on the aforementioned Electr-o-Pura deep cut and concluded Beating As One with their own version. It would be easy to mistake “My Little Corner of the World” for a Yo La Tengo original, though. The band mistook the Anita Bryant tune for a Richie Van original until Ira’s mom set them straight—for Yo La Tengo are as homey as indie rock gets.
Steered by boho couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, and joined since 1992 by bassist/jack-of-all-trades James McNew, Yo La Tengo are intimacy incarnate. Listening to their narcotic bass loops, guitar entanglements, and attentive harmonies is, to borrow a line from “Moby Octopad”, like being locked in a kiss. Outside eyes cease to exist. The three members trade-off vocals, sounding like they are breathing each other in. Combined with their cagey and bashful responses when asked about their lyrics, their music can be at once insular and exclusive, as though just for them, and yet profoundly inviting.
This intimacy extends from music to geography. Yo La Tengo are intrinsically linked to their birthplace of Hoboken, New Jersey—a roomier, more affordable alternative to downtown Manhattan at the time and only a sugar cube’s throw across the Hudson. The city’s heart was a club named Maxwell’s, a home away from home for the band and a microcosm of New York’s (and the country’s) exploding indie rock scene. It was here that Yo La Tengo formed relationships with such acts as the Feelies (who outright refused to play Manhattan, and whose guitarist Bill Million’s basement studio was the first place Ira was recorded singing), the dB’s (Kaplan shared an apartment above a mob-owned pizzeria with the guitarist Chris Stamey), and the multitude of other bands that regularly came through the Mile Square City.
Although the members of Yo La Tengo variably held other music industry gigs—Kaplan was a critic for the New York Rocker and McNew was a college DJ and contributed to a zine called And Suddenly…—they were never embedded in or subsumed by the wider indieverse or even the wider NYC scene. Instead, as Jarnow writes in Big Day Coming, “They remained centered in a web of connections and fandom that stretched back to the New York Rocker office and continued to reward them creatively and personally outside of the alternative gold rush.” Yo La Tengo established their little corner of the world; it was only right that they covered Richie Van.
It’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what makes I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One so special and why it remains the one for so many fans. All the base ingredients are present in 1995’s Electr-o-Pura. But Beating As One stretched them in more progressive directions. As McNew told Uncut, “[W]e showed different sides of ourselves… different ways we could play.” Electr-o had a nine-minute epic in “Blue Line Swinger”, a cautiously evolving guitar scape of melodic fragments that compete with Hubley’s diffident coos.
I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One answered with ten minutes of soporific drone whorls and oscillating feedback on the Krautrock homage “Spec Bebop” (their “Jenny Ondioline”). Electr-o had guitar-pop nuggets like “Tom Courtenay”, but Beating As One upstaged it with the mighty “Sugarcube”, their biggest commercial hit with its comic-studded music video starring David Cross and Bob Odenkirk. Beating As One had a meditative instrumental inspired by an air conditioner. It had a freak-fuzz cover of the Beach Boys, and it outsold its predecessor by more than double, reaching 300,000 copies within two years and thereby cementing itself as a pathfinder for pop-centric avant-garde.
One of the reasons behind Beating As One’s success may have been the coinciding wave of lauded indie rock. Sleater-Kinney put out Dig Me Out the same month, Pavement’s Brighten the Corners arrived the February before, and Radiohead’s OK Computer was mere weeks away. But that argument does Yo La Tengo a disservice. Despite its heterogeneous constitution, the album sounded like the band at its most relaxed. They returned to Nashville, to House of David, to work with Roger Moutenot for the third time (he also produced Painful and Electr-o-Pura). This was only the second album for which songwriting credit went to ‘Yo La Tengo’. It may have been album number eight—the fourth with McNew—but they were still reclining into their groove, expanding it, and experimenting like kids in a garage.
In-between daily visits to Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack, Yo La Tengo unhurriedly reworked and refined songs based on recordings of their jam sessions, which tended to go on for hours. The languorous atmosphere and Tennessee sun are preserved in the musique concrète-inspired “Green Arrow”, an idea sparked by the whirring air conditioning unit in the band’s rehearsal room. Hiccuping crickets and maracas form an ochre carpet upon which Kaplan drools slide guitar sentences, scoring a milky night spent on a porch in a flyover hamlet. Similarly, the literally titled “Return to Hot Chicken” breaks the day with breezy guitar arpeggios that cycle perfectly back around: their take on meditation music. Whereas Painful opened with the postulation, “There’s a big day coming”, “Return to Hot Chicken” suggests a beautifully banal one and a fondness for life’s simple pleasures (hot chicken).
Eschewing this idleness are tracks such as “Deeper Into Movies”, a cloudy shoegaze number on which Hubley drones, “Every day brakes screech outside my window.” Noise vacillates throughout the album, but really everything does—the blithe country-pop of “The Lie and How We Told It” gives way to “Center of Gravity’s” innocuous bossa nova tick-tocking gives way to “Spec Bebop’s” unruly percolation. Then there’s “Autumn Sweater”, considered by many to be the album’s apogee. Maybe it’s the way the track embalms that time of year when there’s a nip in the air and trick or treaters amble down tree-lined streets, but “Autumn Sweater” resonates perhaps more than any other Yo La Tengo song and remains the album’s most-streamed track by a wide margin. Inviting Farfisa hums and shuffling percussion support Ira’s lovestruck reticence: “We could slip away / Wouldn’t that be better / Me with nothing to say / And you in your autumn sweater.”
The pronouncement comes mere minutes before the album’s end: “We’re an American Band”. It isn’t a Grand Funk Railroad cover, but as the band has suggested, it’s too good an idea to leave to MOR arena rockers. I’m inclined to crown “We’re an American Band” as the Yo La Tengo song. It plays like a verbal tour diary or scrapbook, beguiling snippets of on-the-road mundanity shared through sheets of guitars that straddle dissonance and harmony: “Some college in the spring / The sound is all wrong / We set the mains / To our favorite Hootie song”. Noisey characterized the band’s music into five categories, including ‘Catchy Guitar-Pop Yo La Tengo’ and ‘Genre-Dabbling Yo La Tengo’. If I may add a sixth, my favorite iteration has always been Patiently Evolving Noise-Pop Yo La Tengo, a category that encapsulates “I Heard You Looking” and “We’re An American Band”—songs that build slowly and stretch out around you, claustral and inescapable.
Soon after Beating As One was released, the band evacuated their Hoboken practice space. The building was torn down to make room for luxury condos. When your city and scene are in flux, accelerating outwards in all directions, what is there to do but sink deeper into your little corner? Yo La Tengo’s most subdued album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, would arrive three years later, an elongated exploration of quietude and the sound of settling down (sorry, Death Cab). But they continued to share their corner with us, to allow us even closer to home, the cover art featuring a nighttime snap of the married couple’s house in the Jersey suburbs.
Yo La Tengo argue that we should orient life by what makes us feel whole, no matter how trivial it may seem to outsiders—a 200-cap club, a satisfying chicken meal, an LP by an esoteric lounge singer, a house in the burbs. Through this shared intimacy, indie rock’s most ambitious trio let us hear the music of love, a collage of musical history—the heart beating as one.