I was keeping my ears open for when the new Yo La Tengo record would be coming out when I got word that they’d be having an album release party at my favorite record store!
I dragged Son Michael with me because that’s what kids are for.
And there they were standing in the middle of the crowd. If you didn’t know what they looked like, you could have walked right past them. But a line was formed so they could autograph albums. By then even the most obtuse could figure out who was who.
So I bought a couple of records and got in line.
Guitarist and singer Ira Kaplan bore the brunt of my obnoxious questions with grace and kindness. Drummer and singer Georgia Hubley somehow balanced DJing, chatting and signing, Bassist James McNew was your pal who was happy to hang with you.
It turns out that their new album is a tribute to and re-visitation of an album they made twenty five years ago. So let’s start there.
"A fake book is a collection of musical lead sheets intended to help a performer quickly learn new songs. Each song in a fake book contains the melody line, basic chords and sometimes lyrics - the minimal information needed by a musician to make an impromptu arrangement of a song, or "fake it." The fake book is a central part of the culture of playing music in public, especially in jazz, where improvisation is particularly valued. Fake books are not intended for novices: the reader must follow and interpret the scant notation, and generally needs to have thorough familiarity with chords and sheet music. Fake books are often bound."
Yo La Tengo have an encyclopedic knowledge of pop music. They often show up on WFMU marathons to play Stump the Band. I saw them in Prospect Park a few years ago where they did (I believe) an impromptu version of the Monkee's "Sweet Young Thing".
So it's no surprise that after only four years of recording original material, Yo La Tengo decided it was time to put together some obscure covers with some redone originals mixed in.
As as one would expect it can be hit or miss.
The advantage of picking obscure covers is that most of the time people haven’t heard the originals and so can’t compare them to the new versions.
Of the many I’m not familiar with that sound wonderful to me, the best are The Scene Is Now's “Yellow Sarong”, the Flaming Groovies "You Tore Me Down” and Daniel Johnston's “Speeding Motorcycle” and , “The Summer”. And they do quite a creditable job on Gene Clark’s “Tried So Hard”.
Other good ones are Cat Stevens’ “Here Comes My Baby”, John Cale’s “Adalucia” and Rex Garvin’s (I told you they’re obscure!) “Emulsified”.
And the originals they sprinkle throughout are very, very good. Especially "The Summertime"!
The only ones that come up short are the Kinks “Oklahoma, USA” - one of Ray Davies’ greatest songs - which requires more than Ira’s fragile voice can accomplish. Don’t believe me? Here’s the original - a masterpiece hidden on side two of a fairly unknown record. (By the way, Yo La Tengo was Ray’s backup band during his solo tour in 2000. Ira loves the Kinks, so he must have been in heaven, since Ray is such a barrel of laughs..)
And “Griselda”, about a young man trying to persuade his girlfriend to have sex with him by the moonlight, is hampered by Ira’s earnest attempt to make it pretty. The original had a horny pervy vocal that suited the subject perfectly.
But otherwise they do a fine job.
The lineup includes guitarist Dave Schramm, who knows how to add just what the given song calls for. He prettifies what Ira might otherwise bulldoze.
So it’s a bit scattershot, a little frustrating, but very often brilliant. I’m probably grading a bit harshly on principle. In practice it glides by quite gracefully.
“You Tore Me Down”
Next: The New One