Indie staple Yo La Tengo stretches the limits of rock with transcendent noise

By Shaun Cullen

I have seen Yo La Tengo (YLT) twice before. The first time was when they played at the Virgin Megastore on Union Square to promote 2000’s …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Later, I caught them before a huge crowd, headlining the Primavera Sound festival in Barcelona.

The venues for both performances denied YLT the volume control that has earned them my approbation. As expected, their appearance in the archetypically clubbish confines of the sold-out Vic Theatre on April 21 provided YLT with a superior acoustic setting. They used the appearance, part of a short tour in support of their retrospective Prisoners of Love, to explore the two decibel levels at which they seem most comfortable: deafeningly loud and barely there.

They began somewhere in between, with an amniotic instrumental interrupted by some cacophonous space noise. Only during their second number, a ragged version of “Cherry Chapstick,” did lead guitarist Ira Kaplan’s playing begin to shatter my mind. At this moment, a fellow concertgoer’s production of her own tube of cherry Chapstick reminded me of a comment on YLT I had heard a couple weeks earlier: that they are the only rock band worth their salt these days. Reminiscing about this comment as Kaplan’s six strings provoked in me chrome-colored hallucinations of tinnitus still to come, I began to derive the meta-critical figure upon which to hang these observations: the category of “rock band” itself. Is YLT one? And if so, how?

Two weeks earlier, my companion’s comment made perfect sense. YLT, a three-piece line-up of bass/drums/guitar and melodic vocals, continues to produce excellent music in an ostensibly rocking style. Yet these aging noiseniks have never truly occupied the vanguard of the rock formation, indulging instead in residual paradigms of skronk and shamble. This is not to say that YLT forsakes several of classic rock’s moves. There is not a little of Dave Davies’s green amp in Kaplan’s various noise devices, and, at this particular performance, his napalm histrionics on “Blue Line Swinger” (from 1995’s Electr-O-Pura) summoned that most rockist but rare of comparisons to Jimi at his most visual.

Still, what struck me most of all during this minor performance was not YLT’s latent rockisms, but their considerable comfort in the jazz idiom of improvisation, looseness, and swing. I think it is this soulfulness that inspires our continued interest in YLT’s moves despite the rock formation’s resistance. YLT’s rhythm section, composed of drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew, exposes the act to this apotheosis via non-rockist ideologemes. They maintain the drum machine’s iron discipline, but they resuscitate it. They produce bubbles of rhythm upon which the band’s mellifluous melodies reflect like rainbows upon the liquid skin of soap bubbles. Within this gloomy pink champagne, Kaplan reminded listeners in the Vic that the keyboard is also a rhythm instrument. On the otherwise predictable “Season of the Shark” from 2003’s Summer Sun, Kaplan’s voice quavered above a moving series of rhythmic shudders on his electric piano. The piece became a strange example of the type of light, vocal jazz that only this band seems capable of making interesting.

The form of this light vocal jazz move suggested the whimsy with which the band approached the content of this sold-out performance. After the shambling instrumental rendition of the Move’s “I Can Hear the Grass Grow” during the second encore, I quit keeping track. Unlike me, the punters lasted late into the evening, drawing the band onstage for even a third encore. All night, the band arranged a strange alchemy of sentiments that I must declare rockist only within the most generous boundaries. Better put, YLT have, more humbly than most, tapped into a certain constellation of soul force common to the jazz, rock, and noise patterns that makes them the most interesting artists working close to the rock idiom, but also upon it.

With their Vic show and on their recently released “best of” collection, Prisoners of Love, YLT plumb the limits of rock band (in)authenticity and its associated charismas. Instead of mystifying, they encourage us to glue our conceptual notions of what a rock band is to the secret of pure sound that taunts us behind the screen of volume.