Monday, October 15, 2018

Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006)


(Matador)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

[Note: Below, with some hesitation, is my original review of this album from about a month after its release, so please keep in mind the context of the culture in 2006. Then and now, I consider the record a masterpiece, as I did from my very first listen -- something that almost never happens to me, and only has on three occasions since (whokill, Modern Vampires of the City, Yeezus). For me it told two simultaneous stories: one about effortlessness -- the band that can do anything they can think of, like Prince circa Sign o' the Times, or the Beatles circa White Album -- and one about the fierce passion required to create the illusion of effortlessness. That same passion, in retrospect, serves to indicate a well-read consciousness that, beneath the quirks and jokes and personal asides, the anxiety of the Bush era was impossible to avoid, was creeping in to all aspects of daily existence. It has since, of course, taken over, and while all four Yo La Tengo albums since 2006 have had plenty of merit, only their latest, There's a Riot Going On, makes any attempt to contend with the fallout, fear and desperation for hard-won peace in our day to day lives. Domestication in rock music is tricky. It can be treacly, or pedestrian, or even overly didactic. By never resorting to the grandiose or to pretension, an act that would be fatal for any number of other bands for whom ego and loud self-assertion are undeniably integral, Yo La Tengo document a story that seems small at first glance, but really is the ideal expression of the chaos that can occur within a state of relative normalcy, the biting of nails even as you know you are loved. The older I get, the more this seems incredibly profound to me, perhaps because it mirrors my own lifestyle -- which is, I recognize, an extreme degree of privilege -- but also because it reflects an interest and recognition in the value of the mundane that I associate just as strongly with Hollywood comedies of the Depression, the sensation that human experiences both good and bad belong to absolutely everyone.

Talking of growing older, I inevitably disagree with certain comments made in the paragraphs to follow, and I've also edited out a bit of fat. Actually, I've edited out a lot, but not all of it was fat. I originally structured this as both a review of Beat Your Ass and as a confession about some problems I'd been going through in my personal life that I'd been reticent about discussing with friends. Perhaps it's a testament to the record's greatness that I associate it with one of the worst times in my life, probably the worst time, yet I still can't get enough of it; as the song goes, "we were young" and it was nobody's fault, and now it's another lifetime and almost everything that could change long since has. I am not comfortable reproducing that material here, so this is a version I cut down and posted some time later; you can still read the original post at my personal blog if you dig for it, and it's alarming to me how different my outlook on relationships was then. Which I would imagine is why I singled out "Sometimes I Don't Get You," nice as it is, as one of my favorites. ("The Weakest Part" was and remains one of the most beautiful songs in pop music about staying in an untenable relationship.)

At any rate, I grew to like "Song for Mahila" after hearing it live and learning to live inside its sweetly probing guitar lines; and to love "The Race Is On Again" as its Byrds-isms and harmonies became gradually more affecting; and just this year I've started to appreciate "I Feel Like Going Home" at last, thanks in large part to Georgia's vocal. I clearly was already enamored with "The Story of Yo La Tango" in 2006 but I should have said much more about it; this is the kind of song -- not only because of the recording itself but because of performances at many of the nine subsequent YLT shows I've seen -- that has now taken on a real air of importance and history for me, and at this point the snowball effect has left it almost unbearably touching, and it's clearly intended by the band to be a monument of sorts: a slowly building cacophony that seems to be reflecting on the very fabric of the relationship among the people playing it, and maybe those of us listening, and always by the end it seems like a wave made to blissfully wash us away, like "Blue Line Swinger" a decade earlier. It's now almost certainly my favorite song on the album, and -- every time I put myself through it -- a thrilling, cathartic experience, but who am I kidding, so is the entire album.]

***

Quite a few people reading this have grown up at the same time that I have and are therefore presumably at the same state of (im?)maturity as me, so I have a general question for all of you: The older you get, do you find that you understand less what separates the commercial from the uncommercial? I'm just wondering if it's me, or what. When I pull out the new Yo La Tengo record, very unfortunately titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (only their third worst album title ever), I find myself incapable of determining what makes this "indie" and what makes much of what's on the radio "popular." That's because a lot of those things are based on chance, obviously, but it just underlines how little quality or "commercialism" has to do with the distinction. There's a lot of top 40 stuff I like and an overwhelming amount of self-important reactionary "indie" stuff I hate, which is possibly because many of the younger bands have been raised on this notion that good music is somehow an exclusionary notion, that it separates the smart from the dumb or the cultured from the isolated. None of that is true. One of R.E.M.'s least commercial songs ever is their biggest hit. And Yo La Tengo, who may well be the most fulfilling and varied rock band to surface since the '60s, still aren't on the radio and still even have some sort of indie "stigma" that mischaracterizes their audience as a broad group of music store clerks and rock critics. Who invariably are fans, it seems, but that's because their music is hard to resist, to even the seasoned, hipper-than-thou crowd.

This album features what I believe is Yo La Tengo's first ever "anthem," "Black Flowers," a march of sorts with cheekily overbearing production and lyrics that is nevertheless given the ring of complete sincerity by bass player James McNew, who lately gets one song per album that generally stands distinctly apart from the material of his cohorts (he sang my favorite song on Summer Sun, the Pet Sounds tribute "Tiny Birds"). McNew's vocal performance makes this track soar, and it does this alone until Georgia joins him at the finale. "Black Flowers" would fit right in on modern rock radio today — McNew's vocal style is in vogue at the moment, something that will probably never happen with neo-Ira or Georgia, as the Velvet Underground have unfortunately proven by failing to ever break the Top 100 — amid many bands who are doing the exact same thing in far less interesting or revealing ways. Maybe "independence" means a lot less than individualism, and that's what makes Yo La Tengo great, what makes Madonna great despite the fact that she sells a lot of records and that's supposed to be bad, what made Brian Wilson great despite all the drugs, what makes Prince great despite the religion. Yo La Tengo almost seem at times to exist in a vacuum, as the Beatles once did. Each album seems a self-contained reaction to little more than the one that came before it. It wasn't always this way.

The ad Ira and Georgia placed in the Voice in 1984 called for guitar and bass players who were familiar with Love, Mission of Burma, and the Soft Boys. In order to be hired, former bassist Dave Rick had to give Love's original name over the phone (the Grass Roots, in case Ira and Georgia ever ask you to join). Yo La Tengo's first record, Ride the Tiger, is in the perpetual shadow of folk-rock and early '80s indie, is produced by Clint Conley of Burma, and features a Kinks cover so reverent as to be almost hilarious, along with Ira's distinctly angry and defensive vocal style, a Lou Reed drawl he developed with considerable ease and nuance on New Wave Hot Dogs (featuring "Lewis," which the Velvets would have slowed down to a crawl and which YLT mercifully doesn't), which nevertheless still has the mandatory Velvet Underground cover, albeit an obscure one beautifully sung. President Yo La Tengo is an even better record, but the band is still making music — as they continue to on Fakebook — for people who already love the kind of music they love.

Whether the hiring of James McNew in 1991 changed their attitude or whether his entrance was just a timing coincidence is hard to figure, but the band's maturity on their next three records was well beyond that which they had previously exhibited (Fakebook having been a covers album for the most part). May I Sing with Me, Painful and Electr-O-Pura are still the most commercial-sounding albums they've made, May I Sing fitting in with the post-Nirvana haze without being able to make the lucrative connections their peers Sonic Youth did at the same time, Painful reversing the My Bloody Valentine concept for a major label and even generating slick videos and a fairly hot-sounding single, and Electr-O-Pura being one of the few records that completely defines the "alternative rock" moment of the '90s. From there onward, the band is in their own universe, developing ideas as if an island, recording every style of rock music that's ever existed and plenty that haven't, one day the loudest band in the world and the next day the quietest. But nowhere is their complete creation of a singular universe clearer than in the singing. Kaplan doesn't belt things out these days, nor does he ape Verlaine or Reed, he whispers sweetly and casually; there are certain songs on the last several albums that would be outstanding even if they were nothing but his voice: "Our Way to Fall," "Last Days of Disco," "From Black to Blue," "Season of the Shark," the actively stunning "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float." Georgia's vocals have become no less assured and for me, she's not just the best singer in the band but maybe in the world, and many would argue she isn't a singer at all. And she can play the drums pretty fucking hard while she does it, too; she did a great "Little Eyes" in Asheville [in 2003] amid the banging and her voice remained remarkably soft and even inviting.

There are also the lyrics. Except on Tiger, the band always had good ones, but their focus has changed. Ira and Georgia were married in the late '80s, but only since the new century rolled around have relationships become his primary focus in songs that seem at times painfully personal, a condition no doubt enhanced by his wife's presence just behind him at the drumkit. "The Crying of Lot G" is, like Lennon's "Well, Well, Well," less a song than a random confession set to music, though Kaplan prefers cooing to John's screaming. It sounds like a song about a fight, though such presumptions may be unhealthy. The trend continued with Summer Sun's delirious collection of love songs to Georgia, from the troubling "Don't Have to Be So Sad" to the sweet "Nothing But You and Me." Going a bit earlier, "My Heart's Reflection" may well be the most moving love song of our time, capturing with VU-like urgency the passionate and complete need for somebody right now, this minute, in total and almost scary conviction. I wouldn't want to assume anything about Ira and Georgia's relationship, now in its third decade, being his subject matter of choice (and maybe hers, in her less oblique material; "Today Is the Day" certainly raises questions), but they could not possibly deny that it holds considerable weight with their image, that it affects the way people listen to their music. Spin's review of one album wondered if "Autumn Sweater" was about them cheating on one another. "It's nice," said Ira, "that people care." Kaplan was also once asked if he minded people asking him about the marriage. "Not if they don't mind me telling them it's none of their business." It isn't, but the way it's captured in the songs is.

Another question. Do you remember a few days ago when I quoted someone saying that the biggest fan of any given artifact is the one least qualified to judge its relevance? I'm about to commit the crime of proving it. I am incapable of being nonchalant or critically sharp on the subject of Yo La Tengo. It is just never going to happen. I am a shameless mound of hero-worshiping dirt here. If this displeases you, skip the rest of this and know only this: As usual, they have surpassed expectations and delivered a nearly perfect A++ record, to my mind their fifth in a row. My Beatles comparisons will only get worse from now on, I'm afraid. So I can't recommend this album highly enough. Now read the review if you want.

The album has what I think instantly has become my favorite first few seconds ever. Georgia beating the drums with the strength of a thousand, Georgia laughing softly if you turn the volume high enough, and then the hardest, dirtiest, most triumphant riff Ira's ever played. We made it, bitches. We are back on the air.

An eternity after leaving Summer Sun with the ethereal, in retrospect ominous cover of Big Star's "Take Care," Yo La Tengo immediately counter anticipations of their demise with this first track, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind." Wide criticism of Summer Sun and, to a lesser extent, the prior album was that it was so bereft of rock songs that the band was sliding into easy listening. This was untrue in either case; Summer Sun was lacking in guitars, but there are many other Yo La Tengo albums with nothing but guitars. As much as I loved Summer Sun, however, even I was relieved by the news that Not Afraid would be a return to the mixture of noises, peace and chaos, that embodied I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, their most eclectic album of all. The consistency of Summer Sun was kept in place by dropping a few loud songs that were subsequently included on an EP, Today Is the Day. While Sun is not to be faulted, it may in fact have faced off nearly all of its critics with the simple inclusion of "Styles" and "Outsmartener," and yet so what? It's perfect the way it is, and now I Am Not Afraid will hopefully allow people to hear it for its own virtues.

Because this album has it all. It's like a reunion with a friend. "Pass the Hatchet" is ten minutes long. It has processed vocals, and handclaps! Yet nearly everything else on the album is even more surprising. Summer Sun managed this the first time around, but Not Afraid continues to catch me offguard after five complete listens. One way in which it has proven Sun detractors correct is that it's the first Yo La Tengo record ever on which the least effective songs (relatively) are almost invariably the slower ones. Meanwhile, the unwieldy 8+ minute jams are, this time, addictive tracks I defy you to skip. These are no "Sunsquashed" endurance tests: "Daphinia" is a beautiful ambient piece, "The Story of Yo La Tango" is unfortunately not a tango but still beyond reproach and dazzling. As for the ballads: "I Feel Like Going Home" and "Song for Mahila" are sweet but mildly trite, "The Race Is On Again" — highly appropriate title notwithstanding — just feels anonymous. But true story: I thought "Season of the Shark" was anonymous in 2003 and I was once bored by the whole of May I Sing with Me. So these feelings will probably change. Still, what is up with the lyrics on "Mahila"? Did Yo La Tengo have to prepare material for a Jerry Lewis telethon? If so, I apologize for this joke.

The rest of the album contains nothing but forward-looking, boundary-stretching but instantly appealing Yo La Tengo, wrapping themselves around every idea with unflappable energy. "Mr. Tough" is insanely cool late-'60s soul with the potential to be world-saving massive; the horns are wonderful, and the bridge, driven by Ira's remarkably emotive piano solo, is glorious enough to knock anybody's defenses down. This and the other songs here are, like "Black Flowers," notable for sounding nothing like Yo La Tengo have ever sounded before. I can't get over the eclecticism displayed by "Mr. Tough"; it's on the level of stuff the Clash did on Sandinista!. Add "I Should Have Known Better," their most relentless rocker in a decade or so, to the list; this one, too, could sell a radio listener on them while defying all logic: the guitars (and organ) are turned up higher than any metal band's [do metal bands have organs?], but James and Ira mumble the words, refusing to look for emotion in the obvious places. "Watch Out for Me, Ronnie," finally, is truly special. Coming from anyone else, this filthy, enormous garage band tune might be precious or derivative, but the commitment to a great, awe-inspiring time here is such that if it's just rockabilly-revival Nuggets stylistics, it jumps to the all-time top of the heap. People have done this before, but nobody has ever put this much behind it, and just as significantly, Yo La Tengo have never done anything like it before. To argue that the placement of something like this on an album and in a catalog full of things with no obvious similarities is to ignore the nature of bands like YLT and the Velvet Underground, who refuse to confine themselves yet rarely stumble in their efforts to unite a hundred years of history under one roof. If anything, Yo La Tengo have been around long enough now that we can safely say they've taken their cause to places Reed and company couldn't have imagined, from undersea documentaries to kids singing "motherfucker" at the top of their lungs. And hey, Yo La Tengo even write their first bit of total hippie shit with the excellent and wildly psychedelic (and jazzy!) "Point & Shoot." Make love not war, indeed!

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass also contains an interesting quirk that might go widely unnoticed. It's only the third Yo La Tengo album ever that includes not a single cover. It's a kind of irony given how much work is done to make them sound like a band that is only just discovering how they want to make music, so exhaustive is its investigation of genres and ideas. That said, the album's two best songs are pure Yo La Tengo. But again, they jump to the top tier of the catalog easily. The delectable, easygoing "Sometimes I Don't Get You" is soul, beach music, love, and weirdness, as apt a description of the band in general as I can muster up without mentioning feedback, which the song doesn't have. Ira sings it with curiosity that transcends bitterness and resists the temptation to emote excessively over the wondrous Motown bridge. It's funny, it's sad, it's universal, it's so them.

My favorite track for more reasons than I want to count here is "The Weakest Part." What I can decipher of the lyrics are astonishingly personal and lovely, and wise. The song sounds like Brill Building pop, or the Beach Boys, but written by a band that understands these forms intimately. "Beautiful" isn't enough to describe it. I love it because it could not have been written by anyone else, and it could not have been written by the people who wrote it ten years ago. I love the lilting, soft, sexy elegance of it, but I love even more the way the rhythm and drums and muscle drive it forward with strength, the kind of thing so few bands can manage that Yo La Tengo could do in their sleep. I love Georgia's vocals, some of her most expressive ever. I love knowing that it's possible for a band to have been together for twenty-two years and still be improving. I love how this song and the band that performs it make me wish I could do what they do.

In an old review of an unrelated album that I'm otherwise too embarrassed to let anyone see (which, as you now know, is saying a lot), I did say something I still like, which was "The album is like a gift for having survived adolescence." I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, aggressive name aside, is like a gift for surviving young adulthood and sticking it out through today. Snapshots of the last four years that come into my head may be, by some standards, uncomfortably reliant on pop culture and other frivolous things, but I'm not ashamed to tell you that one I never seem to shake is the image of standing at the Orange Peel watching Ira Kaplan attack his guitar during "My Heart's Reflection." There was nothing else in the world at that moment. Sometimes I think there still isn't.

***

[Again, originally posted in 2006, heavily edited circa 2008, and here we are.]

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