Yo La Tengo, The Roundhouse, London
Tuesday 17 November 2009
Yo La Tengo have a certain way with a song. It can be trundling along nicely but not necessarily grabbing you, when a sound emerges that makes your ears prick up and suddenly all the divergent parts of the music come alive and the song becomes great. In their opening track, "My Heart's Reflection", it's James McNew's rumbling bass; in their second, "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven", it's Ira Kaplan's guitar solo followed by McNew's sweetly pitched backing vocal, that bring their songs into sharp, brilliant focus.
Not all their songs need this approach though; some have a fresh immediacy. A stand-out on their latest album, Popular Songs, is the opening track, "Here to Fall", complete with dramatic use of strings. The band uses an eight-person string section for this vital live rendering. In less capable, less understated hands, the string section might seem an unnecessary addition. But for Yo La Tengo it is a perfect moment. The string players also seem to delight in a chance to rock out.
That they can enjoy such instances shows how far they have come. Kaplan and Georgia Hubley started the band in 1984, playing covers of their favourite bands together, just to pass the time in their family home (the pair married in 1987). They released a number of records before McNew came on board as bassist in 1992. Now, by dint of their longevity and the sheer consistency of their 12 albums, the trio are US indie luminaries.
Over the years they have become brilliant musicians. Though they swap instruments less now than in previous years, it is still a feature of the Yo La Tengo experience. All three take up lead vocals at various stages throughout the show, while Kaplan flits from guitars to organs and keys. For a few songs he slips behind the drum kit and lets his wife take centre stage. On other occasions, drums are dispensed with entirely while Hubley sings amid delicate acoustic backing from the band. On "Autumn Sweater", an old favourite from 1997 warmly received by the crowd, Kaplan plays an organ as his band mates both provide propulsive percussion.
It's striking how easily the band oscillates from moments of quiet beauty to all-out noise. It is still thrilling to see Kaplan not so much play the organ and keyboards, as attack them, providing several signature moments of noise terror throughout the evening.
Another signature effect is the "Yo La Tengo epic"; their albums are littered with these frequent extended noise rock experiments. A number of them are delivered in the show, but the effect is best seen on the final song of the set "The Story Of Yo La Tango" (the error is a nod to concert promoters’ frequent misspelling of their name), from the 2006 record I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. It's a gorgeous piece of ever-building psychedelic noise. The song fills the cavernous venue with sound and then just keeps getting bigger with Kaplan assaulting his guitar just as he had tackled the organ earlier.
It would have perhaps been just right to have finished on this brilliant moment - how can you follow that? - but they do return for an encore, which includes the lovely 2002 track, "On Our Way To Fall".
Near the end of the show, Kaplan mentions their latest album. "We had the savvy idea of putting it out in the same week the entire back catalogue of the Beatles was released," he quips. "It's ok. We're not in it for the success. We don't hold a grudge." The packed Roundhouse audience, happily enjoying songs culled from Yo La Tengo's quarter century-long back catalogue, certainly don't hold a grudge either. They might even disagree with Kaplan's definition of the band's success.
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