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Photograph by Jesper Eklow
Clerks: Jersey kids Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan (center) and James McNew parlayed geeky record love into indie band success. Go figure.

Play That Funky Tengo

As they warm up for multiple West Coast engagements, Yo La Tengo let us in on the secret: they've had rhythm all along.

By Paul Davis

CALL IT the curse of consistency: any band can take a long hiatus before being welcomed back with open arms upon the release of a so-called "comeback" record. On the other hand, you have the unassuming bands that create strong work, album after album. Bands like Yo La Tengo who never get their comeback record because they've never gone away. Some start taking these artists for granted. But as Yo La Tengo demonstrates on Popular Songs, that would be a mistake.

Naming the album Popular Songs is a wink to longtime Yo La Tengo listeners, as the band has never made what is generally considered "popular music." The Hoboken-based trio is far from a household name, and it's doubtful that your extended family members are familiar with their work. But among indie-rock fans, Yo La Tengo are practically demigods, revered for their 20-odd years of service blurring the boundaries between folk, noise rock, shoegazer drone, melodic punk and yes, pop music. Among those listeners, the Yo La Tengo origin story is practically rote: former record store geeks and rock critics defy all reasonable expectations by becoming seminal underground artists. Their rabid listenership trends to similar callings, to the degree that the Onion skewered it seven years ago with the headline "37 Record-Store Clerks Feared Dead in Yo La Tengo Concert Disaster."

It's true, Yo La Tengo has been around long enough to serve as a punchline in the satirical paper of record. But even if their origin tale has become the thing indie rock cliches are made of, the band itself remains as artistically inquisitive as it ever was. On Popular Songs, the trio seems even more restless than usual, jumping from established approaches such as shoegazer drone to far more unlikely styles like funk and soul.

These could be dodgy propositions for a band whose audience is known more for mild head-bobbing than dancing. It's a testament to Yo La Tengo's skill--and good taste and self-editing--that it pulls this feat off credibly. As bassist James McNew explains, soul music is something the band members always liked, and in fact started playing at friends' weddings about eight years ago just to keep people dancing and having fun. "I think those were probably the first times, other than the horrible butcherings we'd do on [New Jersey radio station] WFMU, that we'd shown that side. It's something that we all grew up with, and it's just kind of been a part of music that we like for a long time."

It doesn't exactly come out of the blue. McNew says a close listen to the Tengo oeuvre would reveal a telling predilection. "There's examples in things that we've done that were referencing soul, hip-hop, Brazilian records, but it would be obscured," he says. "As time has gone on we've felt that we didn't need to be so shy and hide certain elements behind reverb." 

For many bands, unlikely stylistic shifts can be a sign of creative bankruptcy. But for Yo La Tengo, that sort of artistic curiosity is in its basic DNA. It's not surprising that Yo La Tengo is finding new approaches, even 14 albums in. What is surprising, though, is the consistent quality of the band's work, a fact reflected in a steady stream of critical acclaim. It's the result of a work ethic that finds the band jamming for seemingly endless hours to find kernels of great ideas.

"It would be much more efficient if we wrote separately," McNew says, "but we tend to take the scenic route. Every song that we've written in the past has started as an hour-long instrumental jam that sometimes results in nothing, but sometimes in that time one of us will hear a chord sequence and melody and we'll go back and develop it into a song. It's a slow process, but that's how we work."

Not particularly glamorous, but Yo La Tengo has never been a glamorous band. Instead they're staying the course: not breaking up, not punching the clock, and remaining as restless as they've ever been.

YO LA TENGO plays Saturday, Oct. 17, at 8pm at the Rio Theatre, 1205 Soquel Dr., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $20 at Streetlight Records. For more info call 831.429.1812.

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