Friday, January 31, 2014

Yo La Tengo: I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One (1997)


!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

Fuck defining the times. Yo La Tengo never were revolutionaries or some telling element of "the zeitgeist." It was always, in a strange way, musical hedonism -- a freewheeling snowball of influences and idiosyncratic fascinations that formed them into a singular, strangely warm entity. Early on, even on a masterpiece like the mostly-covers album Fakebook, it was like you were listening to your friends play music. That wasn't because those records weren't crafty, it was because the group could barely contain how much of a blast they were having playing together and forming their weird impulses into songs, singles, albums (and live shows, where they were really a force to be reckoned with even then). Little surprise that this was already by the mid-'90s one of the most acclaimed alternative-rock underdogs since R.E.M. slipped over to an arena rock phase at Warners.

Something changed, though, with the band's 1993 move to Matador Records and -- just earlier -- their acquisition of permanent bass player (22 years and counting, now) James McNew. On their first four, arguably five albums, this band was the stage for guitarist and screamy everydude Ira Kaplan's fixations and, well, we can't really say demons, but whatever the polite version of demons is. Though drummer and sometime singer Georgia Hubley was prominent in the mix, it really seems to have taken McNew's presence for either of these two to find their unfettered and confident voice, and certainly for their collective voice to become undeniable. Without ever really worrying too much about the design or direction of all this, the trio just melded together and formed into a unit with almost frighteningly flawless synergy. It seemed that they found one another at the perfect time to initiate a creative zenith that, at times, appeared destined to go on forever.

So I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is not their first great record, or even the first great Yo La Tengo record in this particular cycle, but it is perhaps the most dramatic artifact to place against their first two recordings, the smarmy and tentative Ride the Tiger and the genuinely delightful low-key folk rocker New Wave Hot Dogs, and realize that the greatest achievement is in both what's changed and what hasn't.

There is never a sense of formalism to the band's work, and there arguably never would be. It still has a casual, tossed off quality in both composition and performance; it never seems as if it's the work of people who don't care, just people who have no interest whatsoever in putting on airs. This music is almost deceptively approachable -- deceptively because as calm and collected and friendly as it may be, it is eye-wideningly, gut-splittingly brilliant. It invites or requires no excuses of homespun pleasantness -- it's music so fiercely restless it simply doesn't have time to be arrogant about it. Expect some statement about this from them and Yo La Tengo are more likely to form their grandness into some sort of a sheepish joke. They define the idea that the worst thing you can do to your creativity is talk about it -- they just do it, taking it all very seriously, and never look away from straight ahead.

I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One builds on the prior album, Electr-O-Pura, mostly in the quantity and size of its performances, as well as its ruthless eclecticism. There are covers and experiments and strange rambling instrumentals in addition to real honest-to-god songs. Parts of it were recorded live in the studio to capture some of the electricity of the band's stage presence, and while judicious editing is sometimes their strong suit, Hubley, Kaplan and McNew mostly err on the side of overwhelming bigness and sprawl here. The idea is that the record is romantically and emotionally varied enough to hypnotize you, and snap you out of your strange trance at key moments, thus giving the entire album the quality of a wonderful drone -- even on the songs that don't actually drone. They drone when they need to.

Most would say it remains the quintessential Yo La Tengo record, certainly square one for most new fans. It was about a year and a half old when I first heard it. We had a mediocre modern rock station in my town and toward the end of the night they would play this thing called "The Final Hour" and "My Little Corner of the World," of all things, showed up and hooked me. As mentioned in the piece linked there, a teenage rock fan expects things to fall into a certain alignment; you have to retrain yourself to even accept the idea that a band can sound like themselves without having "a sound." Once you understand, somehow it's the most enchanting thing.

In exploring rock music you run into some performers that can't be pinned down, and almost invariably, those are the ones worth listening to. People always mention the Velvet Underground, and it's fair in the sense that both bands are enormously vital, warm and restless. Having known the Velvets only through aesthetic means -- unable then to sense the weight of their literary and raw imagination -- I favored clearer comparisons. My Bloody Valentine was clear from the single "Sugarcube," and MBV mastermind Kevin Shields remixed their "Autumn Sweater" for an EP this same year. I could sense Pavement a little in "Stockholm Syndrome," the Byrds in "Return to Hot Chicken," the Beach Boys on "Center of Gravity" (for its spirit if not its sound, and more on the "Little Honda" cover in a bit).

The line of description I've come to favor is probably not a popular one, but the truth hurts. Continuing legacies is not what rock & roll is about, and let's be entirely clear on this: Yo La Tengo is an outstanding band, maybe the best one running today, and they are a completely original voice. That's precisely why, despite their small-scale indie context, I think of the Beatles when I hear them. If you have trouble with that, start with both bands' cover versions. On Live at the Star Club, the Beatles threaten to destroy the eponymous venue with a roaring "Sweet Little Sixteen," a song that -- while wonderful and full of life on Chuck Berry's single -- doesn't explode to half that magnitude in its original incarnation. Compare "Little Honda," an intricate and playful Brian Wilson production for certain, but Yo La Tengo seem to inhabit it, transferring it to a CBGB's shoegazer-Velvets hybrid, taking in a lifetime of rock mythology to complement an outstanding composition. No matter if the Beach Boys classic (or the Hondells single, which prompts Kaplan to snarl "champ" instead of "matchless") remains definitive, because whatever the results, the point is that in their moment, Yo La Tengo are more at one with the song than they are paying homage to it.

So continue on to their originals, all of them exhibiting lyrical wisdom and musical subtlety that still jumps out and bites you when it desires. They can make the sweetest pop songs you've heard in years -- china-delicate "Shadows," grinning-heartbreak bossa nova "Center of Gravity" -- or they can squeal with ten minutes of the intense instrumental "Spec Bebop." I think about the way Beatles singles like "Day Tripper" and "Rain" exploded with pop warmth yet always included something off-kilter and bizarre that made the songs all the more endearing. This band does it without hesitation, understanding the appeal of adventure and the joy of oddity, and I Can Hear offers an album-size expansion of these ideas, which is why it is the ideal starting point for anyone who wants to know what the hell this group "sounds like."

It's not out of restraint, though, that this forms probably the most accessible point of their output. I think just about every decade offers some LP that reveals an artist at some kind of peak, willing to try anything and not afraid to put it all out in the open comprehensively. What's more, everything the performer tries not only works but redefines boundaries and musical ideas. The '60s and '70s are obvious -- the White Album, basically undeniable, and the Clash's London Calling, which may as well be considered the seminal LP-sized statement of rock prowess. The '80s are tougher, but I nominate Sign o' the Times, Prince's most fully realized and eclectic effort. The '90s? In case you couldn't figure out where this paragraph was headed, I'll present the evidence.

"Moby Octopad" clashes electrofunk grooves with morbid vocals and guitar wheezing plus a loopy instrumental break; "Sugarcube" is the rock statement, with Kaplan's guitar heroics but soft-as-snow vocals; "Deeper into Movies," named after a Pauline Kael book, stars Georgia Hubley at the top of her lungs over a galaxy of noise that fills a room; "Shadows" follows mournful marital woes with the glimmer of hope in an electrified trumpet. And if you like, there's the massive "We're an American Band" (not the Grand Funk song), throwing it all into a single package. It's here that the record climaxes, and as Kaplan's space-rock solo soars into oblivion, louder and more beautiful than anything you can remember in that moment, lyrical like Verlaine or Coltrane, it's one of those moments when your love for a performance or a band can seem so absolute that you don't know how to express or respond to it. Truthfully, there's no moment of ear-popping otherworldliness like this anywhere else in the band's catalog; this is a collection, in some ways, of singular ideas and moments.

But to mistake mere singularity (or innovation) for greatness would be a crime indeed, and what marks those songs is -- here's where Lou Reed comes in -- the same thing that marks "Head Held High" or "Rock & Roll" or any of the Loaded-era conventional bids for commercial justice: they are simply beautifully written and will never leave your head. Instant standards like they made back when Leiber and Stoller were there to produce 'em. So let's cruelly pinpoint things and say that "Stockholm Syndrome" -- McNew's first lead vocal on an LP with the band -- is classic Brit-Invasion-derived acoustic indie, with that almost classicist structure of the awesome electric solo in the break -- if so, it jumps directly to the front of the pack anyway to become, in all honesty, one of the finest songs of its era.

Or maybe you've heard "Damage" before, certainly if you've given Loveless a careful listen -- almost a dirge, full of atmosphere and echo and airy Eno percussive effects amid an omnipresent wall of feedback. But its tale of communication breakdown is full of such clarity and perceptive strength that, on conviction and pure beauty (Georgia's background cooing) alone, you have a song that in many ways is superior to anything Kevin Shields has written. It's just that Yo La Tengo's attention span is not made for a record like Loveless As soon as the point is made, it's on to the next idea like "Train in Vain" seguing into "I Will" seguing into "Forever in My Life," each as sincerely meant and imaginative as the other.

If the instrumentals on this record can be written off as mood pieces, it's at the price of a good bit of the album's impact on the listener, the way it absorbs and seduces with detail. I've heard people call "Let's Go Away for Awhile" a mood piece too, you know. "Return to Hot Chicken" is like falling into bed or waking up slowly, and the transitional "Green Arrow" is a stirring atmosphere of lonely steel guitar that could go on for far longer than it does. And this wouldn't be a Yo La Tengo record without the big long jinx moment, "Spec Bebop." It's a joy to revel in all three, and they all belong.

It's tempting to skirt over "One PM Again" and "The Lie and How We Told It," but it's the little things that count. Maybe these seem initially like undistinguished tidbits, but they take their time, and once "One PM Again" reaches you you'll be glad. And "The Lie and How We Told It" is subtly indicative of the band's secret weapons: their voices. Here and on the tremendous closing harmonies of "Moby Octopad," they find as much lyricism in their wordless whispering (McNew epecially) as Kaplan does in that emotional fit at the close of "American Band." As for "My Little Corner of the World," well, we need a closing statement, don't we? And this one says an awful lot in its gentle way.

Most of Yo La Tengo's albums prior to this one -- and many since -- dive into one of their characteristics to uncover a world of nuance. For this album, they exposed their every impulse and created something divine that sits apart, certainly in their catalog, but equally in the heart of modern pop music: it's a moment to the breathtaking beauty in its own chaotic loudness, the pained complexity in all things that seem initially smooth and sweet. Nothing here seems simple, or arrived at accidentally.

Hearing it again to put this post together I played it on headphones and was gobsmacked all over again -- just thinking trite things about what a powerful, creative and absorbing band this is, how gigantic the album is even at its gentlest. Playing it on tiny computer speakers last night it seemed to keep me company and take me back to the times when I fell in love with it. And on vinyl tonight, played as loud as I could get away with, it applied itself perfectly to right now. We had a winter storm the last few days and as I got home, the wet white mush was falling from the roof in blocks of ice (hitting the ground and crumbling like sugarcubes) and strange-looking liquid drips. A strange heat seemed to drift from all this, like spring was physically starting to appear. When the nervousness of "Autumn Sweater" and the wounded moving-on of "Stockholm Syndrome" blared forth, I remembered again that this album's moment won't pass. It defines my times, I don't know or care beyond that.

[Expanded version of an essay I posted about this album somewhere else roundabout 2005.]

Popular Songs (2009)
Stupid Things EP (2012)
Fade (2013)

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Chatham County Line: IV (2008)

(Yep Roc)


No doubt there are bluegrass purists who'd object to something or other that Chatham County Line does on their most consistent and emotionally rich album. If there's anyone who can argue with the steady, straight-ahead production of the great Chris Stamey or the airy but tight acoustic arrangements, though, it's hard to understand how. When they're playing together as a band, there's no denying or minimizing their direct command of their form and their adventurous interpretation of it. They can surprise you, as Route 23 had already proven, but they can also break your heart. That's just musically.

It's in songwriting terms that the band seems a cut above, but it's also inevitably here that they will be seen by some as a compromised entity. These are pop songs, through and through. In contrast to the bulk of bands that have been labeled "alt-country" over the last decade or two, including some very very good ones, CCL doesn't really attempt to directly ape traditional songforms or structures. What they do instead, particularly through the contributions of the guitarist and chief composer Dave Wilson, is create immaculately crafted songs that happen to sync brilliantly with their musical interests. (It doesn't hurt that Wilson has one of the most beautiful and instantly appealing voices in the genre.) The hard-won optimism of "Thanks" or the simplicity and beauty of "She" could serve their considerable resonance just as well outside of the confines of the band's traditional sound. That doesn't mean they don't deserve kudos for sticking to what they do well, just that these are not just good recordings, they're great songs. And for a pop lifer who only dabbles in modern country and folk, that makes a big difference.

The songs that most clearly resemble the fine Route 23 are fun and tough-minded. Closer "Thanks" is all gruff, sweet hard-won optimism with a touch of the sardonic, "Country Boy/City Boy" has bounce and sting like the songs that likely led you to them in the beginning, "Let It Rock" reminds that the simple pleasures of beat and swagger know neither age nor genre, and Chandler Holt's contribution "Whipping Boy" makes clear that there's more than one gifted singer and writer in the band (but we knew that). Truthfully, these songs are even the best place to hear how splendidly the band plays together -- I'm still kicking myself for missing them live (twice now!).

But when the record lays everything on the line for pure melody and lyricism, it moves beyond simple floating of skill and grace, and becomes breathtaking. "Birmingham Jail," about the 16th Street Baptist Church Bombing, is almost certainly the best song about the Civil Rights era that a white person will write in this century -- full of sober and novelistic imagery, empathy, journalistic wisdom, and an edge-of-seat intensity from the band. It has the gravity, the rage, the absence of look-at-me flippancy to feel like a potential folk classic.

And yet the smaller, more intimate ideas and recordings are just as moving in their fashions: the alcoholism lament "Sweet Eviction" is the rare folk song that gives a sense of setting as strong musically as verbally ("Stumble by the cathouse / Where the women dance for dollars you made while dreaming"). The melodic permanence, intimacy, wit of "The Carolina" and "Chip of a Star," one driving and gorgeous, the other clipped and warm (and somewhat reminiscent of Sky Blue Sky-era Wilco), connect to us almost automatically, without falling back on the alt-country tropes of cheap machismo and down-home cliché. You feel an urge to carry these songs with you, to know them back to front. And it doesn't take very long.

Wildwood (2010)

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Camera Obscura: Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi (2001)

(Andmoresound [orig] / Merge [rerelease])


Owing more to fellow Glasgow artist Stuart Murdoch than to the punchy girl group pop that would inform the aesthetic of their more accomplished later albums, the debut by Camera Obscura is a melodicist's dream but also a surprisingly cold, bleak affair. It piles one midtempo song atop another -- some lovely, some rather dull -- and all of its beauty is in the psychodrama instigated by Tracyanne Campbell. Discovering Biggest Bluest Hi-Fi only in the last few months, I must say it's given me a bit more of an understanding of what sourced the radical drabness of their 2009 record My Maudlin Career.

The album never betters its opening moment, musically or especially lyrically. "Happy New Year" invites little celebration but immediately exposes more heart and truth than some indie-pop writers will for their whole careers: "I am softer than my face would suggest / At times like this I'm at my lowest ebb." What else is there to say, really? Many of the songs feel rather dirgey despite their twee-pop pedigree -- "Pen and Notebook," for starters -- but you put up with a lot here simply because over and above the arrangements, the vocals, words and harmonies make up so much of the difference. A key moment is when "Eighties Fan" opens with a drum-machine "Be My Baby" rip then keens instead of swooning, or when the big sweet duet "Houseboat" turns out to be so mournful you want to hug it. It's not a party record, okay? But nor is If You're Feeling Sinister -- a less flippant comparison than it might seem.

Serving as producer, Murdoch makes little room for the obvious differences in performance style between Camera Obscura and his own band, Belle & Sebastian -- which is supremely ironic since B&S's work would soon make room for sprightlier, bouncier Pursuits than ever before. For all ten cuts (twelve on the canonical expanded version), except during guitarist Kenny McKeeve's too-frequent intrusions, one's overriding takeaway is just wanting to know Campbell more, the same way you wanted to know Paul Westerberg or Ray Davies or Tracey Thorn or, hell, Murdoh more as personalities -- articulate, painfully sad, painfully withdrawn but full of wit and deadpan, she is a joy to listen to, making something stunningly honest and valuably warm of her alienation.

That's the major catch-22 of this album, and of Camera Obscura. On their next two albums the songwriting would get stronger, the melodies catchier, the production loftier, the band immeasurably better. But there's never again a moment of pure intimacy like "Happy New Year." Campbell was already so fully formed as a lyricist and singer here, and the absence of distraction makes this perhaps the best and fullest portrait of her artistry. The special moment of untouched yearning, without the deliberate and self-conscious nostalgia of the Merge and 4AD albums, makes it hard to hold this record's flaws against it -- they help make it a reticently cathartic but never indulgent embodiment of a lovingly hopeless mood, and the beating heart of a true-believing pop composer.

My Maudlin Career (2009)
Desire Lines (2013)