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Yo La Tengo - Today is the Day

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Artist: Yo La Tengo

Album: Today is the Day

Label: Matador

Review date: Oct. 30, 2003

Yo La Tengo is the consummate DIY band, a conclusion derived not from the quality of its recordings but rather from the spirit of its musical enterprise. The first two albums, Ride the Tiger and New Wave Hot Dogs, are shambling, joyful albums that really only share one thing in common with later, more polished efforts like I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and this year’s superb Summer Sun: they were made by people who know that it is fun to be in a band. It’s fun to learn how to play a favorite song, like “It’s Alright (The Way That You Live)” or to dig through the crates for an undiscovered gem like The Scene is Now’s “Yellow Sarong” and bring it to life again, and perhaps even going the original one better in the process.

Along the way, Yo La Tengo has demonstrated that the vitality of rock music can be found in the malleability of its canon. Just examine the differences between some of Yo La Tengo’s covers (and few bands have recorded more) and their original versions. People won over by the folksy beauty of “Speeding Motorcycle” are shocked when they hear Daniel Johnston’s plaintive original. The noisy, one-chord guitar riff on “Little Honda” smirked at the intricacy of Brian Wilson’s composition, unmasking it as an impressive but unnecessary trick for a song that is really about the appeal of cutting loose. Their guest vocalist didn’t even know the words to “We Are the Champions,” and it failed to matter – getting on-stage and travestying Queen’s lyrics made for a good time, and for that reason I would wager that anyone who has heard this cover prefers it.

It is a lesson Yo La Tengo has applied to its own catalog as well. The band is known for stylistic leaps between albums, but it’s not averse to stylistic leaps with regard to the same song. Consider the long and short versions of “Big Day Coming”, or for a less pronounced take, the electric and acoustic versions of “Barnaby, Hardly Working”. The point is that there is not one way to play “Speeding Motorcycle”, “Little Honda”, “Big Day Coming”, or “Autumn Sweater”. The songs can withstand multiple interpretations, they exist not just to be listened to but to be played as well, and indeed learning to play it – deciding to DIY – and perhaps changing it yields a deeper appreciation.

Everyone agrees as a theoretical matter that time signatures and instrumentation are not sacrosanct based on the writer’s wishes, but actual practice points to a different conclusion. The author is certainly not dead, and seldom out of the picture. Covers are either worshipful reproductions of the original, or, bankrupt radio-ready takes on songs of dubious quality to begin with. Yo La Tengo has conducted itself in a different manner. To their way of thinking, if dreams of playing like the Flamin’ Groovies inspired you to form a band in the first place, then it ought to be okay to cover the Flamin’ Groovies even if your version does not sound at all alike. By the same light, if you can think of two equally matched ways to play your own song, then by all means play both.

Yo La Tengo’s new Today is the Day EP includes three covers: two new versions of previous Yo La Tengo songs and Georgia Hubley’s take on Bert Jansch’s “Needle of Death”. The title track is a muscular retread of a song released earlier this year on Summer Sun; where the original relied almost solely on Hubley’s vulnerable lead vocals, the new version ramps up the tempo and blends in Ira Kaplan’s guitar flourishes, which rely upon the repulsion between the speaker and his guitar pick-ups as much as anything else. One would think – knowing the original – the song would collapse under such a punishing assault. As Electr-o-pura demonstrated, however, Hubley is more than capable of carrying a rock song. There are indeed moments – such as the bridge before the second and third choruses – when her voice sounds perfectly suited for such a song, transcending the clamor and somehow making sense of it.

The second song, “Styles of the Times”, fuses three separate rhythms: the drums, the guitar, and Kaplan’s metered lyrics – a litany of name-dropping that would sound like it was made up on the spot if it were not for its impeccable structure. Opening in Barcelona, and continuing the literal and metaphorical travelogue from there, the mood of restless ennui is impossible to miss. The three-minute length of “Outsmartener” and its placement in the middle of the album make it easy to miss, but it’s worth noting as one of the few attempts thus far to merge the loud and quiet versions of Yo La Tengo. The drumbeat sounds like doomsday, but the keyboard plinks out a delicate melody, and William Parker, collaborating once again, provides frenzied, spooky accompaniment on the double-reed horn. The vocal harmony is admittedly awkward; Kaplan’s voice stretches about a register lower and Hubley’s is nearly inaudible, which makes any attempt at harmony slightly abortive. “Outsmartener” does not quite work, but it’s a noble effort.

Two songs ditch the studio touches entirely, going the route of single voice with guitar accompaniment. “Needle of Death” is not terribly different from the original, but it’s a good choice nonetheless, if only because nobody would reflexively label it as a Yo La Tengo song. The band rethought the guitar work for their acoustic version of “Cherry Chapstick”. This version has a lead guitar line that echoes the vocals, but without the feedback, the focus is entirely on the lyrics. An unfortunate decision, since the original was merely another chapter in the ongoing story of the triumph of the electric guitar in the work of bands from Hoboken, N.J., and the melody is a little understated as a result. Again, one has to admire the invention, but the energy of the original, which made the lyrics seem honest and insightful rather than self-pitying, is sorely missed.

Today is the Day ranks as an outstanding album on its own merits, but its timing is also impeccable. Arriving at the end of this year, it will hopefully silence those who have accused Yo La Tengo of sliding into mid-career pleasantness. That criticism has never seemed more misguided. It first ignores the fact that, for a band that has slowly developed an encyclopedic grasp of rock’s subgenres, releasing a more relaxed, downcast album is a logical progression – a reaction, perhaps, to the ecstatic noise of their earlier albums. It’s also a criticism that ignores songs like the new “Today is the Day”, a version that they have been playing live for some time. (They played it in Chicago this summer, with lead guitar from former member Dave Schramm, and it was stuck in my head until I heard it on the EP.) Yo La Tengo experiments too often and too successfully, with its own work and others, to ever fall into such a rut.

By Tom Zimpleman

Other Reviews of Yo La Tengo

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Nuclear War

Summer Sun

Prisoners of Love

I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

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