It’s one of those early spring nights in the mid-South, the kind that feels like the cover photograph on Jackson Browne’s Late for the Sky. We’re sitting in our living room in the twilight of a Friday night. Me, my wife, two friends from the neighborhood, and my oldest friend from New York. The neighborhood friends once lived in New York, too: he, a native; she, a transplant.
We’ve had enough wine already to see beautiful pink sky colors, and we’re waiting on supper to finish taking its sweet cooking time. Our friends are getting to know one another; my wife is smiling broadly because she loves opening our house to friends and family.
I’m in charge of music of course, so I try to keep up with the times, the mood, the occasion. I put on Yo La Tengo’s ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.’ After about the third song, my best friend kind of shouts:
“Could you PLEASE put on something else? That’s driving me crazy!”
The women tend to agree, but my other friend, the native New Yorker, simply says, “It’s just Yo La Tengo. They’re from Hoboken.”
Oddly, that doesn’t do the trick. I change the record to something more palatable to all. Something like Stereolab I guess.
I wondered if something was wrong with me then.
I suppose I decided not, because ten years later, I’m still buying Yo La Tengo records. I don’t think their latest, ‘Fade,’ is quite as good as ‘And Then Nothing…’.But I still think my best friend would ask me to play something else. Which reminds me again how much I love both my friend and Yo La Tengo.
‘Fade’ is the band’s thirteenth record in a nearly thirty-year history. Like many of its predecessors, this record whispers its meanings, just as co-creator and vocalist Ira Kaplan’s singing tends to feel and sound like what is normally most band’s rhythm section. In turn, the guitars sing their way into the foreground. However, instead of straining to hear the lyrics and understand them—as I used to do with most REM tunes—I relax and soak Yo La Tengo in. I don’t have to soak hard either; they always find their way in.
While there are some very nice, tuneful, shorter songs on ‘Fade,’ like “Well You Better” and “Paddle Forward,” the longer songs, as in keeping with the band’s other records, are the ones that require, simply require, repeated listenings.
In “Cornelia and Jane,” where Georgia Hubley sings lead to quiet guitar strings, it feels as if someone is speaking to not just another person, but to her own dream self:
I hear the whispering
Just out of you
Still I know what’s inside of you.
Neighbors appear in the view
Let me be clear for you
How? Let me hold on to you…
I hear them whispering
But no one knows
What’s lost in your eyes…
Don’t we all speak to ourselves in our dreams? Through our dreams?
Or consider “I’ll Be Around”:
I’ll be around, to make up your thought
Save your kaleidoscope girl
In the doorway
Just look to my world…
I’ll be around, to make up your thought
Why should I turn from your face?
I’m looking for you.
It’s a nearly five minute song lost in thought, lost in promise. What is it like to always be around when the one you’re looking for isn’t there, doesn’t care? Who’s saving whom?
Kaplan sings this one even more quietly that usual. Is it possible to be drowned out by a single acoustic guitar and minimal background keyboard? Is it possible to want to be?
And it might not seem possible that you could love a song called “Stupid Things,” where “Every little thing just creeps up on you/A bumpy road/I could still reach them/And it takes my breath away.”
The song keeps building for over five minutes, but who cares about time because,
We always wake before we fall
I always know that when we wake up
Liquid the time that holds us down but
I can barely slumber
When does that time go before our eyes?
…I always know that when we wake up
Sleeping, dreaming, that’s Yo La Tengo. Everything does seem a dream when you’re listening to them. I’m listening now, and I wonder if I’m dreaming, if I’m back in my living room, trying to explain about Yo La Tengo.
That I think they are the perpetual soundtrack to every dream I have and especially those I forget. You know, the ones my soul recognizes on early spring nights.
And then there’s the leadoff track, “Ohm.” It’s what Yo La Tengo considers a rave-up. Except they’re right. Turn it up and put it on repeat. The lone chord, repeated with infinite variations, makes you want to sing and dance, even with people who don’t like the band:
Cause this isn’t the road we know
Lose no more time
Cause it’s been fun
I heard that you called me
From far away, far like the king Tut
Having the force to make it right
So I just cry…
Sometimes the bad guys go right on top
Sometimes the good guys lose
We try not to lose our hearts, not to lose our minds…
But nothing ever stays the same
Sometimes it pays to just listen and enjoy. Since nothing ever stays the same, I’m having that dinner party again, too. And I know what I’ll be playing: