Friday, September 22, 2006

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: A LITTLE TENGO IN THE NIGHT

A version of this was published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
September 22, 2006


They’ve been cranking out the tunes — frenzied guitar journeys, dreamy meditations, an occasional quirky cover, and stage stabs at shiny pop — for more than 20 years now. And the latest album by Yo La Tengo, sweetly titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, shows the trio still on top of its game, whatever that game is.

Tengo is the musical baby of guitarist Ira Kaplan and his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley. Bassist James McNew has been part of the Yo La family for most of its career. Sometimes Tengo sounds like Sonic Youth, sometimes closer to Fleetwood Mac. Actually the group reminds me of a lo-fi version of NRBQ. Both bands have covered Sun Ra, and YLT has covered at least one Q song (“Magnet”). Tengo doesn’t have NRBQ’s instrumental proficiency, and the group is rooted more in punk rock than R & B, but its catholic approach to music is similar.

On the new album, Yo La happily is all over the place, strolling down some strange avenues of pop sounds.

For example, “Mr. Tough” is a soul workout, horn section and all, with Kaplan singing in a funny, Prince-ly falsetto. The beauty of it is that he’s so unabashed about it. If it sticks out like a sore thumb, what the heck. There are sore thumbs all over the place.

The group gets even stranger in “Sometimes I Don’t Get You.” I had to stop and think of why this wistful, poppy little tune seemed so familiar. Then I realized, this is the kind of music they used to use in late-’60s romantic-comedy movies, when the young hero and the young heroine were first falling in love. It’s the kind of song that plays during the montage scene where the couple is seen walking down a bustling city street, feeding pigeons, and then running through a park hand in hand, then riding in a horse-drawn carriage.

The next track, a nine-minute slo-mo, astral-plane instrumental called “Daphnia,” could be used for the drug sequence in the same movie. A piano is the main instrument here, playing off reverberating guitar noise.

The spacey “Black Flowers” sounds like a Flaming Lips demo with horns and strings added for depth.

Don’t think Yo La has forgotten how to rock. “Watch Out for Me Ronnie” is breakneck garage rock, complete with a “Heart Full of Soul” fuzz-buzz guitar solo.

But the Yo La Tengo I love best is evident in songs like the opening cut “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” the 12-minute closer “The Story of Yo La Tengo,” and the middle-of-the-album “The Room Got Heavy.”

On “Hatchet” and “Story,” the band takes its time to build up to full-fledged guitar fury. “Hatchet” has a crazy guitar hook that repeats throughout and a bouncy beat that almost suggests The Beatles’ “Taxman.”

Wild bongos and a screeching, Farfisa-like organ propel “Room.” Just listening to this song makes you want to sweat.

When you’re finished reading this, get thee to the computer and read a much better review of it by comedian David Cross on eMusic:

“Forged in hubris and leather, this New Jersey (and Brooklyn!?) trio consisting of the fat guy and two Jews are quite capable of taking us on one wild and wacky ride through the debauched underworld of the ‘Indiers.’ I have not listened to the CD, nor will I, but I nonetheless review it based on the track titles alone.”

More fun with Yo La Tengo: Every band should have its own political cause. On Yo La’s Web site, you can sign its petition.

“Appalled by the increasing ubiquity of soy sauce, Branston Pickle, sriracha, chutney and the scourge of undocumented salsas on our tables, we believe enough is enough and ask you to join us in our petition to the United States Congress demanding legislation that would once and for all make ketchup our national condiment. Our leaders must say no [to] the Mayonnazis and Mustardistas who would make our country weaker by dividing us. Let us speak together as one ... for America.”
Also recommended:

* Chainsaw of Life
by Hellwood. On the heels of Johnny Dowd’s latest album, Cruel Words, the Dutch company Munich Records has released this little gem, a collaboration between Dowd and bizarro swamp songwriter Jim White. Dowd’s drummer Willie B (real name Brian Wilson) is the third full-fledged Hellwooder. Frequent Dowd vocal partner Kim Sherwood-Caso sings on several cuts.

Hellwood will be a welcome treat for fans of the movie Searching for the Wrong-Eyed Jesus, in which White was prominently featured and Dowd performed.

Even though Dowd and White collaborated on writing several of the tunes, most of the songs sound like either Dowd songs or White songs. (Well, except for “Fireworks Factory,” which was written by White and sung — or, rather recited — by Dowd, but it sounds amazingly like Stan Ridgway.)

White’s best moment, and perhaps the most powerful track on the album, is “A Man Loves His Wife,” a slow, acoustic, “scenes from a marriage” ballad that deals with a guy who “loves his kids but he scares them to death/When he comes home from work everyone holds their breath.”

My favorite Dowd song here is “Thomas Dorsey,” an ode to the great gospel songwriter. It’s a slow, plodding dirge, with marimbas and flanger-y guitar. “His songs give comfort, they give inspiration to lost souls across this great nation,” Dowd drawls menacingly. Later he confesses, “I wish Satan would let me go/Devil music is all that I know/I sing songs of lust and depravity/That’s the only kind of songs that come out of me.”

Well, that’s about right. But Dowd’s devil music is inspiring in its own wonderful way.

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