If ever an indie rock band deserved proper canonization, it would be Yo La Tengo.
For nearly three decades, the New Jersey trio has built a somewhat peerless résumé, releasing album after album to near-unwavering critical acclaim, and with songs such as the fuzz-pop gem "From a Motel 6" and the aching "Autumn Sweater" becoming staples of mixtapes and film soundtracks. Along the way, they've incorporated so much music history into their own oeuvre that they've become masters of the rock cover, filling entire albums with interpretations of classics and even doing an annual all-request show every spring on Jersey station WFMU.
Last year, New York music critic Jesse Jarnow amassed the band's accomplishments in the excellent biography Big Day Coming. But becoming history, says Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew, has its downside.
"Jesse's great and we loved the book, but at the same time, we were a little skittish about it," he explains. "It's hard not to look at it as an obituary. You associate things like that with bands that aren't working anymore, and we were actually working really hard when the book came out."
That hard work was in service of Fade, Yo La Tengo's 13th album that was never intended to be such. McNew says that he, guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley never plan to make records; rather, they simply write songs until connections emerge. "Until that point, we think we may never make an album again," he offers. "Leading up to this record, we really did wonder about that. We entertained the notion of just making singles and EPs. And while we were chasing our tails about that, we wound up writing a record."
Despite the uncalculated approach, Fade is surprisingly cohesive. Though its 10 songs offer Yo La Tengo's standard variety of pace and texture, they share a calm, reflective tone. Both 2006's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and 2009's Popular Songs darted between styles. Slow Hubley-sung ballads sat between playful soul-inflected pop, rough rock swing, cinematic ambience and several 10-minute-plus sprawls. McNew balks at the idea of calling those records more eclectic than Fade or any other Yo La Tengo record; for him, they're all part of a three-person whole.
"I've always felt that if we're playing it, it's us," he insists. "It's a legitimate part of our lives and our personalities, and something that we feel so strongly about that we committed it to a record. So in my vision, those albums stuck together pretty good."
What helps Fade stick together best is that no track lasts longer than seven minutes, a rarity for an act that usually turns over at least one song to Kaplan's extended guitar journeys. Before recording the album, they agreed to limit the sprawl because it seemed most appropriate for these songs. "It's not like we were trying to rush to the punch line," McNew says. "It's just that we had short songs."
Still, even the shortest tracks on Fade feel like loose jams, a quality McNew calls "long-form playing in short-form songs." He points to his part on "I'll Be Around," one of the record's gentlest pieces. "I just hit a bass figure and I don't stop," he explains. "I could play that for the rest of my life and be happy."
Finding joy in repetition has long been a staple for Yo La Tengo, who revisit songs from all eras of their discography onstage. And in the studio, older elements of their music cycle back into the mix. "Mathematically, over almost 30 years of writing songs, we're bound to revisit certain sounds and themes and ideas," McNew admits. "But I like to think that they've grown with us as we've gotten older."
Indeed, in spite of the repetition, Yo La Tengo works to avoid redundancy. After years of working with producer Roger Moutenot in their own New Jersey space, Yo La Tengo traveled to Chicago to record Fade with John McEntire in his Soma Electronic Music Studios. Though they had known McEntire for decades (McNew likens a 1992 cramped-van tour with McEntire's band Seam to "surviving a war"), the process forced the trio to discard the shorthand they'd established with Moutenot and rebuild how they talked about what they heard.
Yo La Tengo found another way to shake things up since the release of Popular Songs: In 2010, they started the "Spinning Wheel" tour, in which the band spun an actual wheel each night to determine what they would play. Options included songs beginning with a particular letter, a full set of their instrumental score for the film The Sounds of Science and even the trio acting out scenes from Seinfeld. "I learned the only way you can be totally prepared is to never be prepared," recalls McNew. "That was a real process of letting go, and it was liberating. It gave us more confidence to just let things fly."
A few times, the wheel landed on a set of songs by Dump, McNew's excellent low-key solo project. "It made me see why Ira likes playing guitar so much," he says with a laugh. "To have all those pedals and just turn loose on them—I totally see now what all the hubbub is about over there."
But Yo La Tengo isn't in a rush to rethink everything. Its annual spree of Hanukkah shows at Maxwell's in Hoboken, N.J., has become its own seasonal celebration. Each year, the band plays eight nights with a wide array of their favorite bands. This time the list included New Jersey forefathers The Feelies, reunited post-punk surf band The Raybeats and rapper El-P, whose recent album featured bass contributions from McNew. To him, the Hanukkah shows say more about Yo La Tengo than perhaps even Jarnow's book could.
"It lets people into our world as closely as possible, to get a feeling of who we are and what we're about," McNew says. "It's very emotional, and it might be the most satisfying thing that we do."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Living history."