The Beatles made their first home recordings a year or so after Elvis Presley recorded “Heartbreak Hotel.” Bands like the Ramones and the Sex Pistols were fully formed by the time Let It Be turned five. But a decade or so afterward, rock ’n’ roll’s rate of progress slowed to a crawl. We live in interesting times; why do so many musicians seem bent on avoiding them? White Stripes and Vines, Stills and Thrills: I’m talking to you! Put the Ouija boards away, tip your hats to the cultural moment, and show us better ways to be! After all, two New York-area bands did just that this very week, releasing albums that couldn’t be more different from each other but that work together to point a way out of the rut that so many backward-looking bands have fallen into.
Yo La Tengo records a studio album every other year or so. The latest, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, is their 12th, and in many ways, their most accomplished. The band tends to sell in the low six figures—numbers that would bring joy to the heart of any midlist novelist but that could never hold the interest of a major record label. But Yo La Tengo’s aesthetic—and business model—has less to do with rock ’n’ roll as we’ve come to know it, and more to do with a group like Kronos Quartet. Working artists rather than rock stars, they’ve carved out their own corner of the musical universe.
The band lives modestly—guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, who met at a Feelies show in 1980, share a cluttered apartment and drive a small, green Subaru. Together with band mate James McNew, they play a great many benefits for clubs and causes they admire and collaborate with an endless variety of artists, from the Sun Ra Arkestra, Bright Eyes, and Laura Cantrell to filmmakers like Mary Harron and comedians like Marc Maron. And, like the Kronos Quartet’s, Yo La Tengo’s achievement is predicated, in part, on an encyclopedic grasp of the canon.
Take their annual benefit show for the locally beloved listener-supported radio station WFMU. Every spring, Yo La Tengo crowds into ‘FMU’s Jersey City studio, sets its instruments in the corner, and waits for the phones to ring. Listeners call in and pledge $70—in return, the band will play any song their fans can think to request—something by the Specials, or the Stooges, Paul McCartney’s “Live and Let Die,” or Don McLean’s 679-word “American Pie.” Yo La Tengo has no way of learning the songs, or practicing for the performance beforehand. And because WFMU broadcasts live, the trio plays without a safety net. In 2005, the band kicked off its set with Outkast’s “Hey Ya!,” flubbed the first verse of “Kodachrome,” substituted “Can’t Explain” for a requested Who song they’d never heard of, and breezed through 35 other covers, pulling off a musical hat trick that few bands would even attempt. For Yo La Tengo—which also plays an annual eight-night Hanukkah stand at a Hoboken club called Maxwell’s and has never repeated the set list—setting the bar impossibly high is just another means of moving the band forward.
They’ve managed all this, in part, because their lifestyle and work habits leave plenty of room for experiment, eclecticism, and chance. Hubley’s parents were pioneering American animators—their creations included Mr. Magoo—and her band has a Magoo-like habit of turning wrong turns into adventures. The band’s discography makes room for folksy cover records, and wind-swept sound scapes. In the late 1990s, Yo La Tengo moved to a rehearsal space with poor acoustics, turned their instruments way down, and sang in whispers—the result, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, was one of the best late-night/Sunday-morning records since the Velvet Underground’s Velvet Underground.
Kaplan, who writes and sings a good many of the band’s songs, began his career as a rock critic and soundman—he’s a fan boy living out his fantasy as a ferocious, feedback-driven guitarist, and he works hard to make that fantasy real. Heard live, Yo La Tengo is droning, hypnotic, and geologically deep (I’ve heard more than a few admiring fans compare their shows to church services). But the band’s encyclopedic grasp, and all-encompassing aesthetic, has a downside: On record, Yo La Tengo can sound bloodless and imitative—more interested in reciting the rock ’n’ roll liturgy than adding to it. When it comes to the new album, neither adjective applies.
At first, at least, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass sounds like an encapsulation of everything Yo La Tengo has accomplished since the band found its footing, in 1993 or so. The 11-minute opener, “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” owes part of its name to an obscure soul side, and part of its sound to the Beatles’ “Tomorrow Never Knows,” but the stripped-down groove is the best approximation yet of what Yo La Tengo sounds like in concert. (Click here to download the entire song in MP3 format.) What follows—featherweight waltzes, crystalline sound scapes, and rave-ups inspired by the band’s annual pilgrimage to New Orleans’ Ponderosa Stomp garage-band festival—is a slow cycle through the idioms that Yo La Tengo has mastered, and a snapshot of the joy they take in that mastery. Strong and self-assured, the album is this year’s best argument for rock ’n’ roll’s arrival as a mature, Modernist art form.
The same can’t be said for TV on the Radio’s Return to Cookie Mountain; it’s the sound of a young band that’s only just finding its voice. But that voice is a glorious thing, and the band is endlessly innovative and exciting. The group is the brainchild of Dave Sitek, a Brooklyn producer known for his work with scenesters like the Liars and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and Tunde Adebimpe, a Nigerian-American actor. TV on the Radio announced itself locally with a handmade, self-distributed answer to Radiohead’s OK Computer titled OK Calculator and nationally with 2003’s Young Liars—a five-song EP that concluded with an inspired, a cappella cover of the Pixies’ “Mr. Grieves.” Three years, and a few records, down the line, they’ve cemented their lineup, and their sound, and emerged as contenders for Radiohead’s role as rock’s reigning innovators. It’s no wonder that an elder statesman like David Bowie (who makes a guest appearance on the new album) is paying close attention to their every move.
The sound itself is a centrifuge, fusing elements of prog-rock, doo-wop, blues, pop, and post-punk. Thanks to Sitek—who claims to smoke three-quarters of a pound of marijuana a month and has said that he upped his intake while producing Return to Cookie Mountain—the album’s tracks are densely textured and obsessively tinkered with: The band is a music box one moment, a locomotive the next. Thanks to Adebimpe, who is the best male rock singer to come along since Kurt Cobain, the songs are richly shaded, warm, and enveloping (TV on the Radio has yet to figure out how to reproduce their sound onstage). Because four of TV on the Radio’s five members are black, the band has been compared to Prince and Living Color. (“It must be my fluorescent body suit,” Adebimpe has quipped.)
But TV on the Radio sounds like nothing else out there, and Return to Cookie Mountain—which improves immeasurably on the band’s previous efforts—is a fierce and fractured wonder. Last fall, TV on the Radio reacted to Hurricane Katrina by releasing a free, free-standing single called “Dry Drunk Emperor.” On their new album (as on Radiohead’s Hail to the Thief), the politics are implicit, internalized. “I was a lover/before this war,” Adebimpe sings on the opening track, and the tension between wars outside, and within, remains unresolved. And so it goes for the rest of the album, from swirl, to rumble—a dark and troubled distillation of the times, but also a reminder of how vital, how relevant, our best bands can be.