Yo La Tengo - Electr-O-Pura Music Album Reviews

Yo La Tengo - Electr-O-Pura Music Album Reviews
In 1995, the indie rock trio lurched headlong into its own sound with Electr-O-Pura. Now, newly reissued on vinyl, the pop-focused and densely referential album remains a monument in the band’s catalog.

In the fall of 1994, Yo La Tengo spent three nights opening for Johnny Cash, then at the cusp of a resurgence with his Rick Rubin-produced American Recordings. The Hoboken, New Jersey trio have been characteristically self-deprecating about the experience: Guitarist Ira Kaplan—who shares vocal duties with his wife, drummer Georgia Hubley, and the bassist, James McNew—remembers accidentally insulting the audience, who were none too taken with the band’s understated noise-pop. A star-struck McNew, spotting Johnny and June Cash Carter at the side of the stage, almost dropped his instrument mid-song.
“Everything’s gotta be rebooted these days,” Kaplan said from his and Hubley’s home in a recent retrospective, discussing a 25-year-old music video that enacts a similar juxtaposition. Directed by Yo La Tengo’s then-roadie Phil Morrison, who went on to helm the breakout 2005 indie movie Junebug, the 1995 clip for “Tom Courtenay” imagines the band being asked to open for a fantastical reunion of the Beatles. It’s no spoiler to say that the gig doesn’t quite pan out as hoped. The song and the video are each funny and heartfelt, referential and personal, grandiose and unassuming. Both tell you a lot about who Yo La Tengo are, and where they were as the ’90s alt-rock boom fizzled.

Electr-o-pura, currently being given a reboot of sorts by longtime label Matador, occupies a place in Yo La Tengo’s discography that was rarefied before and seems almost impossible now. Released in May 1995, about 11 years after the band formed, Electr-o-pura was their seventh album. So it was a long time coming, maybe unthinkably long, given their modest popularity, in this era of streaming’s short-attention-span economies of scale. But Electr-o-pura was also the second in a nearly impeccable four-album run that began with 1993’s noise-pop gauntlet Painful, peaked with 1997’s expansively intimate I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and then slipped away into the moonlit hush of 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. And it still sounds low-key monumental, like the work of a group that might share a bill at the Mercury Lounge with a reanimated Fab Four.

Unlike the albums immediately before and after it, Electr-o-pura doesn’t represent a gigantic leap, just a great band lurching headlong into its own. It was Yo La Tengo’s second album on the upstart label Matador, and second album with producer Roger Moutenot, who would go on to oversee all of the group’s following albums until 2013’s Fade. And it was their second album with the official membership of McNew, who’d originally stepped in to stop a revolving door of temporary bassists on 1992’s inchoate May I Sing With Me. Emboldened by all this familiarity, the band tore into their emerging signature style—woozy folk-pop ballads, feedback-streaked guitar jams, organ swells, plenty of ba-ba-bas—with shrugging audacity. Fittingly, it’s the first Yo La Tengo album with all three members identified as co-songwriters.

“Tom Courtenay,” again, illustrates why Electr-o-pura and Yo La Tengo have stood the test of time. At the most superficial level, this beloved live-show staple is one of the band’s uptempo fuzz-pop songs, like Painful’s “From a Motel 6” or I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One’s “Sugarcube,” and probably their catchiest. The name-dropping of British Invasion-era movie stars also fits into the concept of this band of dedicated fans (Kaplan, as is often noted, was formerly a music critic for New York Rocker and Village Voice) cosplaying their way into the big show. Most importantly, though, Kaplan himself didn’t actually know much about these old movies—Hubley, the daughter of two professional animators, was the film obsessive. “It was another way of writing about and to Georgia,” Kaplan has said. This was a private world for two. Opened up to an audience, the couple’s shared secrets and inside jokes could signal not exclusivity, but personal connection, ultimately fostering a community of fellow fans.

The rest of Electr-o-pura doesn’t always stick in your head as quickly, but it’s often as rewarding. The opening “Decora,” where Hubley begins with a nonchalant murmur of, “I see you crawling across the floor,” picks up from the flickering dream-pop of Painful; the way that Hubley bends syllables and moans the title phrase on the chorus recalls My Bloody Valentine’s wavy “glide guitar” technique. “It’s not the first time you’ll take a fall,” Hubley warns, memorably adding, “Act like you’ve never seen double before.” The closing “Blue Line Swinger,” also sung by Hubley, is one of Yo La Tengo’s very best songs. No strangers to lengthy instrumental passages, here they stretch out for nine-plus drum-heavy minutes of whammy-bar mangling and organ rushes, as Hubley seems to address a lover gnawed by depression and self-doubt. “Out of the darkness you will come around,” she assures, “and I’ll find you there.” The song is proof. It’s indie rock at its most epically beautiful.

In between, the songs engage in a dialogue with other music that’s like an intimate conversation by other means. After “Tom Courtenay” fades out, “False Ending” fades in, with a raucous clamor akin to the infamous “I buried Paul” section tacked on as the fake-out conclusion of “Strawberry Fields Forever.” A couple of tracks later, though, “Paul Is Dead” recalls not so much the Beatles as the subway strut of the Velvet Underground and the sunshine harmonies of the Beach Boys, while Kaplan deadpans about a guy who’s singing along to the Rolling Stones song blasting in his headphones (“Sympathy for the Devil,” judging by the “woo, woo!”). The second verse shifts dramatically toward the personal, as Kaplan describes a drunken first meeting that grows into something more, then recognizes the impossibility of ever fully understanding another human being, even those we know best. “I try not to hide what is true,” Kaplan sings, and it’s like an artist’s statement.

The lessons from cult records could also be used to convey behind-closed-doors desires. A year after Electr-o-pura, Yo La Tengo appeared, as the Velvet Underground, in the film I Shot Andy Warhol (they have self-deprecating stories about that, too). On “My Heart’s Reflection,” simmering with barely suppressed tension, Kaplan repurposes the central conceit of “I’ll Be Your Mirror” as he suggests, with disarming vulnerability, that he and a lover dress up as each other, locking the room and throwing away the key. There’s even a thrill of danger in his voice as he blurts, “Let’s jump the ship/Let’s cut out.” Why not? The best reason for being intensely protective about privacy is to enjoy it.

A similar tinge of downtown disquiet runs through the guitar workout of “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)” and the clanging, organ-blasted “False Alarm” . But there’s self-aware humor, too. The former is the first of two songs on the album, that pun simultaneously on Flying Burrito Brothers song titles and the prime culinary offering of Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville, where Yo La Tengo were recording for the first time. On “False Alarm,” Kaplan refers to McNew by name and mentions the title of a song tucked away deeper on the album, “(Straight Down to the) Bitter End.” That one is Hubley-led fuzz-pop, a caustic character study that features the evocative line, “The stars that shine but don’t belong to you.” Yo La Tengo shone while walking among us.

In the video looking back at “Tom Courtenay,” Kaplan, who is wearing a black band T-shirt, jokes about how he still dresses the same all these years later. Yo La Tengo’s vision of a welcoming, everyday bohemianism has gone in and out of fashion, but it was never exactly trendy. Electr-o-pura attracted the group’s normal glowing reviews, but it sold less than Painful. Yo La Tengo wouldn’t crack the Billboard 200 album charts until the 2000s. Back then, they were just moderately successful enough to lose to Pavement at ping-pong on the Lollapalooza tour, headlined by Hole and Sonic Youth. While the beverage museum that prompted the album’s title (Electropura was a brand of purified water) was eventually donated to Goodwill), Yo La Tengo have continued to put out several mostly strong albums, along with film scores and other instrumentals. If the pre-reboot High Fidelity, originally published the same year as Electr-o-pura’s release, exhibited toxic masculinity and the misbegotten belief that what you like matters more than what you are like, Yo La Tengo offer the possibility of a more coequal relationship between romantic partners—and one where what you like matters because you, generally, like each other.

For this reissue—part of Matador’s Revisionist History series, which also includes Mary Timony’s Mountains, Pavement’s Wowee Zowee, and Guided By Voices’ Alien Lanes—Yo La Tengo labelmate Lucy Dacus reminisced fondly about discovering Electr-o-pura, with its CD packaging that intentionally messed up the track times (purportedly because reviewers kept singling out the longest songs on the band’s albums as the worst!). Dacus’ stark “Tom Courtenay” cover brings to mind Yo La Tengo’s acoustic, Hubley-led rendition from a 1995 B-side, which sounds like Camera Obscura and might be better than the album version. The reissue rightfully concentrates on the proper LP only, now pressed for the first time across two vinyl records. But part of the Yo La Tengo experience, driven home in their free-wheeling concerts, is the notion that their songs are never finished. Electr-o-pura lives up to that standard, whether in alternate takes or subsequent re-recordings.

The song on Electr-o-pura with the most quintessentially Yo La Tengo-esque story is the serene ballad “The Hour Grows Late.” A whispery Kaplan paints a scene not too distant from some that Yo La Tengo must’ve experienced in their earlier years. A musician packs up his drum machine and, gradually, his guitar, peeking out at empty seats, clock ticking. Kaplan sings that he wants to send this song out to someone called Richie Van “in his thrift store corner of the world.” It’s a nod toward an amazingly obscure singer, whose equally obscure record—a thrift-store score for Kaplan—inspired Yo La Tengo to cover the future Gilmore Girls theme song “My Little Corner of the World” a couple of years later. On Electr-o-pura, Yo La Tengo were poised in between finding themselves and going their own way, and the end result is still exhilarating. Johnny Cash’s American Recordings-era audiences may have been irritated, but after Electr-o-pura hit shelves, Yo La Tengo started covering Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re an American Band” during encores. They’d learned from the best, and they knew that even though they might only be a triumvirate of hapless Richie Vans, they belonged on the same stages.
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About Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera

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Yo La Tengo - Electr-O-Pura Music Album Reviews Yo La Tengo - Electr-O-Pura Music Album Reviews Reviewed by Wanni Arachchige Udara Madusanka Perera on Monday, September 21, 2020 Rating:

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