Monday, August 13, 2012

Jesse Jarnow's "Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo + the Rise of Indie Rock": Book Review

It took guitarist Ira Kaplan and his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, fifteen tries before they found the right bassist, James McNew. This happened over a decade into their career. It began, perhaps apocryphally, with a Village Voice ad: "Guitarist & bassist wanted for band that may or may not sound like the Soft Boys, Mission of Burma, and Love." They formed Yo La Tengo at the end of 1984, when he was twenty-eight and she was twenty-five. This proves their devotion to their craft, and to their endurance as one of America's most innovative rock bands, beloved by a devoted few.

As The Onion summed up their fan base: "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster." This is one band where the audience mirrors the performers, for nearly thirty years. But, Yo La Tengo benefits by their maturity, growing up involved much more deeply responsible for the indie rock movement as they constructed its formation behind the scenes as well as on stage. Journalists, artists, managers, 'zine writers, sound engineers, roadies, label managers, DJs, promoters: this adds up to only a brief resumé. 

In 1964 at seven, Ira Kaplan fell in love with The Beatles and The Rolling Stones on the car radio. As Jesse Jarnow phrases it, all of the band "inhaled the spore" as this music consumed them. Kaplan barely graduated from Sarah Lawrence. He wrote for the New York Rocker in the days when CBGB and Patti Smith ruled, and championed local talent around the Hudson against musical Anglophilia, yet his favorite band arguably remains The Kinks. 

Still, along with many early-1980s rock musicians, Kaplan admired the punk movement, their alternative heirs, and their common idols, The Velvet Underground. Georgia Hubley, the daughter of avant-garde animators John and Faith Hubley, inherited their quirky, artistic sensibilities and fit with Kaplan's suburban, earnest, yet countercultural sensibility. They began their career, bidding farewell to maybe as many bassists as Spinal Tap had drummers, with a jangle which epitomized their adapted home in a pre-gentrified Hoboken across the river. They hung out at Maxwell's, near the coffee factory of the same name, and, jittery, learned to play better and worry less about nervousness. The modesty of their approach has never left them, and it attests to the quality of their music for so long.

Their chronicler devotes much space and extends earnestly an analogy of the Jersey trio to the roots of the Major Leagues in Hoboken as an alternative predecessor well over a century before. For a band who craves baseball, barbeque, and an intimate relationship with used record stores, roadhouses, and off-beat pop culture which fills their leisure time between gigs, this suits Jarnow's diligent tone. This book will please those already in the know, as with collector-driven pursuits. It crams pages with songs, bands, records, fanzines, comedians, brands, and all the detritus of the past fifty years which nourished the band and its audience. One wonders how David Lee Roth's riposte that all the critics loved Elvis Costello because he looked like them translates for these unassuming three musicians.

Certainly, Jarnow shares their immersion as a record-store habitue. His density of references accumulates; he turns his subject into a symbol of indie rock as it leaves the clubs, courts MTV, faces the demise of vinyl and the rise of Napster, peruses the fine print of lawyers and the connivance of big labels, deals with iTunes, and learns to buy in and not sell out. Yo La Tengo scores movies with original contributions, and you can hear a few seconds of them in a Coke ad for the 1992 Atlanta Olympics and an episode of The Gilmore Girls. Yet, the three manage to keep a low profile and in their rumpled hoodies, jeans, and Converse shoes, they look no different than their audiences, at least from my firsthand experience. This study will please those who seek a comprehensive account of the band, as well as a cultural representation of how Yo La Tengo stands for the very movement they helped form, in far more diverse and dedicated ways than most fans or musicians could ever sustain. 

Jarnow's biography blends a fan-oriented account of the band with a survey of how the trio established as individuals first and then as a band the template for indie-rock survival.  They emerged among the vanguard of what started out as "college rock" via the free-form New Jersey station WFMU in the aftermath of hardcore and post-punk. Husker Du, R.E.M., and The Replacements sought an international audience, along with hundreds of bands from, well, many college towns.

As Jarnow sums up their debut LP, Ride the Tiger (1986): they surprised with eclectic cover tunes in concert (they never repeated a set list) and on record they captured "the sound of good taste". Gradually, they incorporated noise and feedback over folk, and like the Velvets, veered from pop to assault, high-art to novelty, Tin Pan Alley to thrash, masterfully. The past decade, their albums have edged into be-bop, jazz, and sultrier, more sullen moods. Jarnow skims over the first half of their discography on labels smaller than Matador, and a reader who is not a listener may wonder why they stand out sturdily on record and slyly on stage as a nimble, witty trio, infatuated with their obsession.

While critical acclaim slowly grew, as with many indie rockers, they could not cash in plaudits for a paycheck. Typically and for a long time, music brought in less than half Kaplan and Hubley's income, as they did the odd jobs in the music business and labored as part-time copy editors of often wretched pulp fiction. One song, "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss", typifies the way Kaplan's mind works under whatever circumstances it found inspiration from a series of "bawdy old Western tales". Kaplan's sleepy attempt to correct a mangled manuscript's phrase: "The mushroon cloud of hiss penis." A leading Spin critic sniffed of their first full-length that it was music to copy-edit by, an inside joke, I suppose, for a band whose sense of humor and comedic flair receives welcome attention here. 

All the same, despite the origin of their often misspelled and garbled name from a typically hapless Mets Spanish-speaking fielder's call for "I've got it," the mild-mannered, thoughtful, erudite, and wryly funny band's private life gains no sustained exposure. The three keep their distance from even their allies, among their audiences and the critics. Jarnow notes when Kaplan and Hubley were in their forties, finally making a living at music, they "built a public career on the notion of a priori love--an engine hidden from view, its only evidence every record they ever released".

One gains less sense over more than three-hundred pages of narrative how the band comes across in concert with their rotating wheel of fortune to pick songs--or how the loud-soft dynamics the band excels in engage their audiences as much as themselves in unpredictable shifts. Kaplan's ability, as with Lou Reed, to overlap lead and backing lines on guitar, Hubley's mingling of delicacy and bash, and McNew's harmonies and textures receive nods, but these skills merit applause and deeper analysis. Their confident forays into more hushed dynamics and retro-pop sensibilities, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997), And then nothing turned inside-out (2000), and I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (another sports phrase, 2006) receive limited song-by-song notice, but overall, the emphasis on the culture Yo La Tengo thrives in rather than the contexts their own music contributes constitutes the main content. 

Fans will not need a reminder of why their music matters, but newcomers may supplement this with the albums themselves. They provide an understanding of why this band not only covered (at their debut Hanukkah charity concert series at Maxwell's in 2001, they played 123 songs over eight nights) "We're An American Band" but epitomizes it in typically good-natured yet encyclopedic fashion. This fits their status as between "tumble" and "logic" on stage and in whatever comprises the rest of their life, if there is one beyond soda pop, TV jingles, comedy reruns, the diamond, or platters of ribs. (Amazon 6-15-12; PopMatters 6-18-12)

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