Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Wheel cool time


(Excuse the fact that I rehashed the opening from my first Yo La Tengo review - defensible, just, I think, as what follows was penned primarily for Nightshift rather than this 'ere site.)

That esteemed organ of news satire the Onion once carried a story headlined: "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead In Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster". Walking down Cowley Road on the way to see the Americans make their ridiculously long-awaited Oxford debut, I notice that the Truck Store is already advertising for part-time staff – tempting fate, perhaps?

So how, after 27 years together, do you keep things feeling fresh and stave off jadedness? Much as marriage guidance counsellors would advise, Yo La Tengo have chosen to introduce an element of play and randomness. Each night of the Reinventing The Wheel tour, the nature of the first turn is determined by the spin of a wheel. Support acts don’t get much more TBC than that.

We could be treated to anything from a set of Yo La Tengo songs which begin with vowels or a clutch of cover versions, through a performance by their alter egos the Condo Fucks, to "Freewheeling" (essentially a Q&A session) or even a full and uninterrupted run-through of a sitcom episode – a possibility which, we’re told, is usually met with significantly less applause afterwards than before. (I later hear guitarist Ira Kaplan at the merch stand admitting it would have been a Kramer-less instalment of Seinfeld.)

So we’re perhaps entitled to feel a bit disappointed that fate decrees the evening actually begins with a suite of songs by Dump, bassist James McNew’s side project. But soon it becomes clear that that’s a bit unfair on the man mountain, who flaunts a Mascis-like mastery of the guitar, whose lyrics reveal a sweetly incorrigible romantic and who borrows Prince’s ‘The Beautiful Ones’ to brilliant effect (as he did first on 2001 cassette-only covers album That Skinny Motherfucker With The High Voice?).

Yo La Tengo, though, are something else. While their influence might be overshadowed if not eclipsed by contemporaries and fellow Hoboken, New Jersey aficionados Sonic Youth, the trio – completed by Kaplan’s wife, drummer Georgia Hubley – should be revered as legends in their own right, and for more than just commendable longevity. Both bands have equally catholic musical tastes, but the difference, perhaps, is that Yo La Tengo aren’t afraid to allow theirs full expression.

Post-rock, theoretically an open highway, all too often turns out to be a stylistic cul-de-sac, as formulaic (in its own way) as anything to which it’s opposed. Post-rockers, meanwhile, are fond of casting themselves as fearless sonic explorers but regularly get no further than exploring the contents of their own navels. Sure, Yo La Tengo are no strangers to the ten-minute-long largely instrumental guitar freakout (exhilarating main set closer ‘Blue Line Swinger’ being a case in point), but they’re also ramblers with a flagrant disregard for the fences and hedgerows that divide the musical landscape up into separate genres.

Over the course of twelve studio albums – and by the end of this evening’s gig – they’ve covered pretty much every base with considerable aplomb: superfuzzy indie (‘We’ve All Got Something To Hide’), falsetto-led jollity that in anyone else’s hands might be cringingly awful (‘Mr Tough’), cooing torch songs that fade in and out of a fog of feedback (‘Nowhere Near’), dreamily ambient pop (‘Autumn Sweater’), breathless garage punk (‘Watch Out For Me Ronnie’) and soothing acoustic folk (a cover of Sandy Denny’s ‘By The Time It Gets Dark’, which benefits from the twats near me finally shutting their slackjaws). The only thing missing, arguably, is space-jazz in the form of their version of Sun Ra’s ‘Nuclear War’.

This, we can only conclude, isn’t so much a band in love with a particular type of music as a band in love with music itself.

"Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster"? I rather think not. Worth the wait, Oxford, wasn’t it?

(Afterwards I thanked Georgia in person for writing and recording 'Sugarcube', one of the cornerstones of my wedding playlist less than a week before. I've got a feeling that Kurt Cobain might be harder to track down...)

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