Being in a band is a lot like being married. Anyone who has been in an even remotely serious band can attest to this being the gospel truth. Much like a marriage, sustaining a band over twenty-something years occasionally requires switching things up to keep the relationship interesting. Some people try introducing another partner into the mix. Others try role playing as a orchestral prog outfit or a sexy cowgirl who’s been naughty. People have even gone as far as writing the score to an embarrassingly awful Broadway musical about Spiderman (not recommended).
Whatever you do, the key is to keep from getting bored and wandering off into obscure, self-indulgent solo projects/getting real jobs. On the opening night of Noise Pop 2011, Yo La Tengo (who have been making records and touring since 1986) went to great lengths to spice things up, although to be honest, they didn’t really need to. They still had magic to spare.
Opening for the nerdy elder-statesmen of indie rock were the seminal Los Angeles punk band, The Urinals. The three-piece looked dwarfed by the massive stage at the Fox Theater but made up for it by producing a constant wall of sound. The band (who strongly influenced both the night’s headlines and similarly venerated noisemakers Sonic Youth) are clearly punk rockers at heart. But they are ones more interested in the way two guitars can (when so inclined) bounce epic squalls of distortion off of each other, than making a bunch of kids with oddly colored hair jump up and down. Midway though the set, guitarist Roderick Baker commented on a song they just finished playing, “that song is always fun for us to play but it’s not always fun to listen to.”
The description is apt because, like a lot of punk bands who’ve organically outgrown the genre’s snotty adolescence, what they’re producing is clearly, in their minds, more of an art piece than anything approximating pogo-inducing rock and roll. This is a band unconcerned with tropes like song structures and choruses. Songs barrel through one section and then another and then unexpectedly stop, almost tripping over themselves in the process. This isn’t to imply that their music is especially difficult or obtuse. The Urinals managed to be sonically experimental without being expressly difficult or confrontational. Likewise, the timbers they used never grated on the ears nor did they challenge the audience to endure passages of painful abstraction. Although a few of those would have been welcome as they likely would have challenged the audience to engage with them more directly.
After The Urinals left the stage, Yo La Tengo came on and started explaining their plan for the evening. They were to play two sets. The first was to be decided by an audience member who came onstage and spun a giant wheel with eight different options on it. Whatever the wheel landed would comprise their first set. It’s a clever concept and Elvis Costello is doing something markedly similar on his current tour.
The options on the wheel varied wildly: playing songs all beginning with the letter “s”, a question and answer session with the audience they dubbed “The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo,” a set by their garage rock alter-egos The Condo Fucks (which was clearly the crowd favorite), reenacting an episode of a classic sitcom (which was clearly not the crowd favorite), etc. The winner was a set of the songs of bassist James McNew’s solo project, Dump. Even the band was visibly disappointed that they didn’t get the Condo Fucks, which apparently hasn’t come up a single time in the three weeks of touring they’ve been using the wheel. However, as they said, “we’d love to but the wheel has spoken.”
Dump doesn’t sound all that different from Yo La Tengo. It’s laid back and melodic. The guitars are relatively clean. The vocals float, high and melodic, over generally mid-tempo beds of transparent guitar figures and basslines that don’t groove so much as amble amiably forward. Mcnew’s voice is great. It’s not as distinctive as Yo La Tengo lead singer Ira Kaplan’s, but it’s probably “better” in a traditional sense. The majority of Dump’s set was fun but didn’t quite live up to the near-limitless potential promised by a Yo La Tengo live show. It was only near the end of the set, when the band slowed the tempo to a crawl, and launched into an epic cover of Prince’s “The Beautiful Ones,” that things really kicked into high gear. Dump released a whole album of Prince covers entitled That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice? in 2001, and McNew definitely knows his way around a Prince tune. Doing his best J. Mascis (of Dinosaur Jr. fame) impression, McNew filled the rest of set, which retained the cover’s laconic pace, with orgasmically sludgy guitar soloing. It’s a testament to Yo La Tengo’s instrumental virtuosity that McNew is a better soloist than 99% of guitar players out there and, in this band, he almost exclusively plays bass.
After a short post-Dump break (haha, “dump”), the second set started with a bang. They opened with “Sugarcube,” probably the closest the band has to a mainstream hit. Over the years Yo La Tengo has figured out this whole “indie rock thing.” They simply do what could be defined as the stereotypical “indie rock sound” better than virtually everyone else in the game. They’re completely in control of every note they play and precisely how it contributes to the overall dynamics of each song. And they do all of it without sounding even remotely measured or self-conscious.
That said, Yo La Tengo shows can be hit or miss. Sometimes they’re transcendent and sometimes they can be downright dull. Luckily, this particular show fell in the former category. What distinguishes a good Yo La Tengo show from a disappointing one is if the band decides to turn their performance into a master class in how to rock. The quieter moments aren’t bad per say, but they pale in comparison to the ones that rip, like the swaggering blues of “Periodically Triple of Double,” where Ira Kaplan’s organ repeatedly screeched right over the edge of pain and scampered back again before delivering a blistering solo that crossed the line without ever looking back until it cheekily dropped out with a playful smirk.
As they are wont to do, the band closed with the extended 10+ minute guitar solo of “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” Kaplan is one of the few guitarist who can solo over a repeating, one measure bass groove for more than a dozen minutes and not have it even start to get boring. It also didn’t hurt that he won the crowd over by at the end of the set when he said, “Our hearts go out to KUSF. Even if we didn’t have classical music so much, we’d still be in favor of keeping it.”
Maybe the band needed the wheel to keep things exciting, but for everyone else there, whatever they did was just fine.