Indie Rock

Ay, no mi tengo

I 'm of two minds re: Yo La Tengo, one of the most popular indie bands of the past decade. On one hand, mainstays Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are the nicest rock 'n' roll couple you're likely to meet. For more than a week in 1990, I was totally isolated with the chicken pox — and Yo La Tengo's album Fakebook, with its heartfelt, cozy renditions of songs by Daniel Johnston, NRBQ, Byrds, and Flamin' Groovies, was a cherished comfort. YLT has engaged in genre-crossings few bands since the 1960s would dare undertake — with avant/free jazz titans Sun Ra's Arkestra and William Parker, and the Kinks' Ray Davies, film scoring, accompanying a live light show by visual artists Joshua White and Gary Panter, and performing on The Gilmore Girls. The band's latest opus I'm Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is packed with Velvet Underground/My Bloody Valentinelike feedback-laden bliss ("Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"), charming baroque pop ("Black Flowers"), and winsomely chiming psych-pop evoking the Kinks and Small Faces at their '60s peaks ("The Race Is On Again").

Yo La Tengo: Indie rock's secret jam band.
Yo La Tengo: Indie rock's secret jam band.


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Then again, I've seen them live several times over the past 15 years, and I've always come away ... crestfallen, like, "Is this even the same band everybody's so stoked about?" Kaplan is indeed a good rhythm guitarist, but not exactly an accomplished soloist — and in a rock trio format, it's not good form to spin out amateurish, meandering, incessantly long solos. (I'm not some technique-geek/muso, either — in my garage days I yanked dandy noise from a borrowed guitar. Noise = easy.) Kaplan sometimes sings uncomfortably above his range. The engaging melodiousness of YLT's recorded oeuvre is supplanted by nondescript bash 'n' thud and dreary "jams" that if performed by, say, Jerry Garcia and his ilk, YLT's fanbase wouldn't piss 'em out if they were ablaze. It is indeed a fiendish paradox that I've seen unrecorded bands in the basements of Pittsburgh perform way better than these indie demigods. Go figure.

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