It's been a pretty solid year to be a Yo La Tengo fan. The Hoboken-based indie-rock institution (25 years and running) didn't just release one new album this year, they released two. Their latest, Popular Songs finds the band exploring their entire stylistic breadth, indulging in the orchestrated pop, Motown homages and plenty of anthems. The other, the slightly more provocatively titled Fuckbook, released earlier this year by their not-so-secret alter-egos Condo Fucks, is a sequel to their first cover album, Fakebook, and features the group garage rocking cuts from Slade, The Flamin' Groovies, and The Beach Boys, among others.
But perhaps the biggest treat for Phoenician fans of the band came last night as the group hit The Marquee Theatre, their first Phoenix tour-stop in over ten years. "It's been a long time since we played Phoenix," guitarist Ira Kaplan quipped. "Can I say Phoenix? I know we're in Tempe, but I don't know how touchy you all are about that." The crowd laughed, and Kaplan softly echoed my sentiment about recent Phoenix-Tempe centered tweet wars: "Phoenix Metro Area, we can all agree on that, right?"
The stage patter was kept to a minimum, though, as Kaplan, Georgie Hubley and James McNew tore through their set, periodically stopping to switch instruments, and offer quick thanks to the crowd. "The first time we played Phoenix went terribly," Kaplan reminisced. "Frankly, it was humiliating." The smiles coming from onstage and abandoned cheer coming from the crowd suggested that Phoenix was more than willing to forgive the band for any past mishaps and their long absence.
The band opened with "Here to Fall," a dead-ringer for some unmade 007 film theme, and then stammered into "And the Glitter is Gone," nearly 16-minutes of trashing noise, Hubely hypnotically keeping time with Krautrock efficiency. It takes a pretty ballsy band to pull such a move, but it set the tone for the evening; You've got to have wide ears and comfortable shoes to dig a Yo La Tengo concert. The group's encyclopedic knowledge of pop and rock forms yields divergent results: Songs like "Cherry Chapstick" and "Nothing To Hide" rock, while tracks like "Autumn Sweater" and "Periodically Double or Triple" strut, yet the band always retains its grasp on the post-punk screech that defined their early work, unexpectedly veering into temper tantrums of noise and crashing cymbals.
Onstage, the group is a model of economy. I wondered exactly how three humans would replicate the layered sounds of their records, and it turns out, they do it through a combination of sheer physical force and some fierce multitasking. Kaplan is a purely physical guitarist, launching his whole body into his playing, while McNew switches between bass, keys and drums. Hubely mostly stuck to drums, but her forays to the front of the stage were met with the most enthusiastic cheers of the night. Her electric guitar work on "Cherry Chapstick" anchored the song, leaving Kaplan free to twist pedals and bang on his guitar. The group was augmented only once, guitarist Top Dollar (of psych-rock openers Endless Boogie) joined the group for a cover of Neil Young's "For the Turnstiles," assuring with his very presence that things got suitably loud and wanky (in a great way).
Yet for all the feedback and funk, nothing compared to when Hubely came out front for a solo vocal on "You Can Have It All." Over minimal background vocals and chords, her voice had the rapt attention of the crowd. "Sorry boys, she's married," Kaplan warned, seemingly in as much awe with his wife as the rest of the crowd. "Thank you guys so much," Kaplan said before exiting the stage on the bicycle he rode out for the encore. "You guys are so great, and you can check the YouTube, we don't say that every night."
Last Night: Yo La Tengo w/Endless Boogie at the Marquee
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Better Than: Canceling your gig due to tennis injury. Though I gotta be honest, I like the idea of shows from Sonic Youth and Yo La Tengo having more than a couple days breathing room.
Personal Bias: Yo La Tengo has provided the soundtrack to plenty of cheese-ball indie-flick-esque moments in my life: I remember blasting the Today is the Day EP out of my aqua-green '94 Mercury Tracer's pitiful sound system outside of my first bachelor pad while a gaggle of strangers tossed beers at each other inside; I recall Electr-O-Pura buzzing beneath "what does it all mean" conversations as my buddy Mark and I shared a late night drive down the 202; I vividly remember dissecting the layers of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One over coffee and omelets with a couple of my closest friends one seriously rainy weekend a couple years ago. I know the "personal bias" section isn't usually devoted to sentimental rambling, but the music of Yo La Tengo lends itself so naturally to that kind of emoting, along with awkward solo dancing, spastic air-guitaring, rubbing your boyfriend's butt, and resting your head lovingly on your big sister's shoulder (all things I watched fans do during their set).
Random Fact: Guitarist/co-vocalist/songwriter Ira Kaplan was a rock-writer before Yo La Tengo took off, joining a select group of critics who actually rock. See: Blue Oyster Cult, The Trouble With Sweeney, and Peter Laughner.
Further Listening: There's absolutely no shortage of further listening when it comes to Yo La Tengo, but I'd go with That Skinny Mother Fucker With The High Voice by Dump, which finds Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew tackling songs by Prince to highly effective results, reflecting his main band's prolific diversity.