Yo La Tengo sings with heart

by Joe Manera | 3/30/00 5:00am

To turn on MTV at any moment in the past year-and-a-half is to stare headlong into an abyss. Brazen dissembling has displaced genuine rock-and-roll heart. No one stirs up the younger kids and the older kids, rubs blue-noses the wrong way, creates a sensation that reflects what we're going through. Everyone goes platinum, with the blandest going quadruple-platinum and cult heroes replacing icons.

Right now, we have no rock stars. We have pop stars that buy their breasts or shave their chests, but no one is loud and smart and popular all at the same time.

The best rock has to offer at this very moment is epitomized by the likes of Yo La Tengo, who craft sad, drowsy, experimental rock-pop. Judging by the strength of their latest release, "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out," this is not necessarily a bad thing, but the album is unlikely to be heard beyond the college-radio circuit.

To say that Yo La Tengo rocks would be something of an overstatement. They are the antithesis of everything that makes rock stars politicized figures and cultural touchstones.

Guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley are pale, happily married, unglamorous, reticent. They sing about impossible dream-girls ("Cherry Chapstick") and being embarrassed to dance ("The Last Days of Disco") in voices so hushed and low that every word is a secret.

This means that at first, "Nothing" seems like just that: all mild, Brian Eno-esque atmospherics. Impressively, hopelessly pleasant. All air, no juice. If the opening track, "Everyday," were any lazier you would probably hear crickets chirping in the background.

It doesn't help that some songs, like the closing "Night Falls on Hoboken," drone on into oblivion. Expectations of slim sales cause many an indie band to turn indulgent, and Yo La Tengo is no exception. With a third of the tracks passing the 6-minute mark, "Nothing" could have benefited from some judicial trimming.

Fortunately, repeated plays prove the album to fall just short of intoxicating, despite its awkward bookends. The insistent mid-tempo groove that permeates the album makes it a great chill-out record.

While no one would ever confuse the two acts, the emphasis on groove over conventional song structure is similar to that heard on D'Angelo's "Voodoo." Both ambitious, over-long records are servants to mood, remaining so loyal to the musicians' arty-farty hearts that you either dig it or you fall asleep. Given their chutzpah, these artists come closer to capturing genuine rock spirit than most other acts today.

Besides sheer tenacity, Yo la Tengo's other chief strong suit is that they are ace lyricists. An album that is so mundane at times is enriched by sharp observations and a healthy dose of humor.

The title of "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" is taken from lines spoken by the Troy McClure character on "The Simpsons." "Last Days of Disco," easily the best track here, is a meditation on music's curious curative powers: "And the song said 'Let's be happy' / I was happy / It never made me happy before."

So they're quiet, even difficult. So they won't be stars. Maybe they get a little too caught up in trying to capture the sounds of wind guiding leaves across wooden porch floors and fluorescent lights buzzing after having been left on for too long.

It doesn't matter. In its own small way, Yo La Tengo has crafted something lovely, warm and worth hearing.

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