One day in college I was sitting with a woman friend talking about sex as the local hits radio station pelted us with slow jams.
"I wanna lick you up and down now, baby," sang Keith Sweat wanna-be B5-492 over Casio drum-machine/keyboard hell. For two indie-rock types like ourselves, the irony was too much. "This sucks," said my friend. "There's more love in one Yo La Tengo song than there is in 10 of these porno things. Do people really fuck to this? I think I'm gonna puke." Just to give you some idea of our mindset, my friend went on to get her BA in women's studies, and I currently pay the rent writing about (mainly indie) rock music. And yes, we're both white-assed as hell. Those factors considered, I still wasn't convinced.
"Wait a minute. What about Yo La Tengo?" I asked. "Christ, I dunno," she said. "It's implied. The sex, love, whatever, it's vague. They don't sing about fucking. But, I mean. Well, you know they're married, right?"
To be honest, I didn't know they were married. But at that moment (mid-'93), Yo La Tengo's drummer-singer Georgia Hubley and guitarist-singer Ira Kaplan had been hitched for more than half a decade, and their band was just hitting a recording streak that has lasted from that year's Painful to this year's absolute high point, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One.
Here in the summer of '97, Heart Beating has garnered more critical ejaculation than any other recording by a white guitar band this year, Pavement included. And it deserves it. It's a beautiful, romantic, delicately rocking ideal of what an alternative-rock recording could (and should) sound like. It's the anti-Meredith Brooks, and the best Velvet Underground-derived guitar album since that gray mid-'80s golden age when few had yet heard of R.E.M., and the Feelies still existed. For a Velvety band like Yo La Tengo based in lovers' congress, that's quite a feat, and it's taken some time to get there.
"Ride the Tiger introduced Yo La Tengo as literary types with long scarves and alphabetically filed Television Personalities collections," writes Bob Sheffield in the Spin Alternative Album Guide of the band that first appeared in 1986, right at the same time that former rock critic Kaplan married Hubley.
Early Yo La Tengo is certainly precarious going. Kaplan's spindly, Velvets-like folk-rock riffing and fairly wankish, nerd-boy noodling, mixed with his and Hubley's barely wispy singing voices, at times stunk of a sort of four-eyed, Hoboken crit-rock that was becoming egregious at a time when R.E.M.'s Dead Letter Office loaded four Velvet Underground covers on one recording.
Yo La Tengo's debut album, New Wave Hot Dogs, started a pattern of decent albums marred by lousy ideas. Hot Dogs stumbled with two dim rock-crit in-jokes, "Lewis," which referenced the band America, and "Clunk," which stole the riff to Blue yster Cult's "(Don't Fear) the Reaper." But President Yo La Tengo gave us the band's first classic, the intense heroin anthem "Drug Test."
In 1990, the band graduated to semiconsistency, and it did so, strangely enough, with an album of covers. Fakebook saw the band interpret songs by Daniel Johnston and Peter Stampfel, tunes only a critic could know, but anyone could love. Its high point was the lilting "The Summer," but its hinge point was the increasingly sexy harmonic drift between Hubley and Kaplan.
Two years later, May I Sing With Me encapsulated every Yo La possibility, ranging from the transcendent "Upside Down" and "Detouring America With Horns" to Kaplan's evil, guitar-wank-driven, distortion-soaked "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss" and "Sleeping Pill."
Still, it looked as though the band would never live up to the promise bound up in its droney guitar pastorals (not an uncommon syndrome in the days before Pavement). But Painful broke through to a weird excellence. With James McNew ending a long line of perfunctory bassists by providing the best anchor the band has ever had, Painful played with layered organs and deep, midtempo rave-ups.
The band's next recording exploded, slowly. Electr-o-Pura offers very terse, quiet songs recast as long, gestating drones. On "Tom Courtney," the acoustic, Hubley-sung "Pablo and Andrea," and the three-minute indie-rock bliss buried in the belated gratification of the nine-minute "Blue Line Swinger," Hubley and Kaplan realized, not unlike their New York kindred Sonic Youth, that their energies lay in subtly cultivating the cracks in their guitar gravel and sexy lyrical vagueness.
I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One does the same thing, but its conceit hinges on a love story, not a sound essay.
Heart Beating is as precariously penned as any other Yo La Tengo album, but here the tension lies in a conscious depiction of a life making love and music, and lovemaking through music. It's a marriage recording, something rock 'n' roll hasn't felt safe making since Richard and Linda Thompson closed the door on nuptial bliss with Shoot Out the Lights.
The album opens with an in-joke. "Return to Hot Chicken" turns a melody from an old Yo La drone into an evanescent melodic interlude, suggesting a bridge from an old career to a world of new ideas. The next song, "Moby Octopad," sticks McNew's climbing bass up front while Kaplan's guitar lingers behind to evoke the sounds of a train passing outside an apartment window. A goofy Burt Bacharach quote upends the ambiance, and it isn't the only time Heart Beating's melodrama will be railroaded by a decidedly cheesy reference to '60s pop.
Bacharach falls into My Bloody Valentine in "Sugarcube," which offers the recording's first rave-up and its first usable tag lines. "Whatever you want from me/Whatever you want I'll do: Try to squeeze a drop of blood/From a sugarcube," Kaplan sings to Hubley, creating a sweetly vague metaphor for the challenge of making marriage work.
And for a while, it doesn't. On "Damage," domesticity gets dangerously dull ("I hope I mumbled your name as you walked out the door," Kaplan sings).
"Shadows" sees Hubley flee for safety in darkness. And then there's "Autumn Sweater," a centerpiece if ever there was one, rooted in Hubley's (funky!) drum part and Kaplan's church organ. "We could slip away," Kaplan mumbles, "wouldn't that be better." He's gonna have an affair, but he can't. "It's a waste of time," he sings as Hubley's beat reminds him where his heart belongs.
Emotional lift comes in the form of a cover of the Beach Boys' "Little Honda," a fairly obvious choice for the band that once covered Daniel Johnston, and a reassuring letup after the melodrama of "Autumn Sweater."
The rest of the recording reinterprets the vibe. In "Green Arrow," Kaplan's guitar restfully evokes wide-open spaces as crickets chirp in the background. In "One PM Again," Kaplan whispers, "Let's not make any sudden movements."
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Then Hubley explains it all. First with the '60s lounge-pop of the undeniably cute "Center of Gravity," in which she and Kaplan take a walk just so she can explain love in a math metaphor, "It's clear to me/According to a rule I learned one day in school/Basic geometry." Then after two boring guitar-wank returns, the conceit gets idyllic with a beautifully simple cover of Anita Bryant's 1960 hit "Our Little Corner of the World." It sounds as if Hubley's inviting Kaplan, but in truth he's already there: Hubley's inviting us now. "We always knew we'd find someone like you," she sings, "so welcome/To our little corner of the world."
It may have taken 10 years to tidy it up, but that little corner is a wonderful place to be.
Yo La Tengo is scheduled to perform on Tuesday, September 2, at Nita's Hideaway in Tempe, with the Les Payne Product. Showtime is 9 p.m.