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Yo La Tengo does a cover of Fleetwood Mac's Dreams" that's so loving, so unexpectedly true to the spirit of the original that probably even Stevie Nicks would approve. The band also does a version of Lou Reed's It's Alright (The Way That You Live)" that bests the Cowboy Junkies' Sweet Jane" or any other Reed revamp of recent years. Ray Davies, Flaming Groovies, Flying Burrito Brothers, NRBQ, even Jackson Browne-they've all had their songs memorably Tengoized. It's no wonder, then, that this Hoboken, New Jersey, trio (guitarist-singer Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew) has come to be thought of as a brilliant cover band that also does some okay originals.
We enjoy doing covers, but we're not a cover band," stresses Kaplan in a recent telephone interview. I can't say we approach covers with the same seriousness that we do our originals, but they're never filler. We don't do them to fill out a record or to give radio something to play or for any of the other reasons that covers seem to appear on records."
Yo La Tengo's reason for covering a song is usually to foist an obscure or unpopular tune on the indie-record-buying public. Take the band's cover of Dreams"-please. One of the reasons we recorded that song was that it got such a negative response from our friends that I kind of petulantly said, `Well, just for that, I'm going to make a record of it!'"
The motivation in recording an entire album's worth of covers on the band's 1990 breakthrough Fakebook wasn't to piss people off-although including a Cat Stevens song probably did just that. The all-cover concept just seemed perfectly suited to a band that's always been obsessed with other artists' music.
On Fakebook-musicspeak for a collection of sheet music of standards-the band offered spare, mostly acoustic versions of songs by everyone from its Hoboken cronies, The Scene Is Now, to avant-gardist John Cale. The album became the most successful disc of the group's six-year career. The group followed it by touring with U.K. pop band the Sundays-a group that was a big thing for a couple of seconds in the summer of '90-which gave YLT the opportunity to play to some of its biggest audiences ever.
Formed in Hoboken in 1986, Yo La Tengo released its first record, Ride the Tiger, that same year. Local celebrities on the ever-churning New York City music scene, the band followed its debut album with 1987's New Wave Hot Dogs, a disc that displayed better songwriting. Two years later, ex-Db Gene Holder came aboard to produce the feedback-drenched President Yo La Tengo. On all three of those records, covers, particularly of the Velvet Underground and Lou Reed, played a prominent part. To fans of the band, Fakebook was no big surprise.
But the success of Fakebook and the subsequent tour led to the inevitable backlash. Some critics felt that the band's deft handling of covers masked laziness or lack of creativity. Yo La Tengo hopes to stifle this criticism with its current album of all new, all original" songs, May I Sing With Me.
This album, in some ways, is a reaction to Fakebook," notes Kaplan. We wanted to dispel any notions that we're incapable of writing our own songs."
The songwriting on Yo La Tengo's first cover-free album is remarkably assured. The roughhewn charm of the band's early originals is still there, but the songs have become tighter and less indulgent-the sole exception being Mushroom Cloud of Hiss," a nine-minute assault of feedback that aims to get under your skin but instead gets on your nerves.
As solid as May I Sing With Me is, not everyone's been won over by it. We've had critics review the album and say, `Gee, I wish it was Fakebook,'" groans Kaplan. But Kaplan isn't bothered by pesky critics, mainly because he was once one himself. Kaplan wrote for two now-defunct papers, the Soho News and New York Rocker, in the late Seventies and early Eighties, a tenure he says was invaluable to him.
Because I was a music writer myself, I don't take criticism nearly as seriously as some performers do," he says. I have friends who find it very difficult to read about themselves. Perhaps knowing how flippantly I reviewed some bands, I have a better perspective when reading our own reviews."
Kaplan was covering New York's prog-rock scene during its Ramones/Richard Hell/Blondie glory days. It was an exciting time to be a critic, but Kaplan admits he was no Lester Bangs. I don't think I was an especially good writer," he says. Writing was never something I went into because I liked doing it. I just went into it because I was too chicken to be in a band."
Kaplan says he never thought of himself as a rock 'n' roll critic so much as a rock 'n' roll fan. And he admits he's still just a fan at heart.
Some people have called us music fans first, musicians second, and I would have to agree," Kaplan says. I mean, I don't know too many scales, so there are probably connotations to `musician' that I don't live up to. And don't care to live up to.