We love Yo La Tengo a great deal. Hell, everyone should. If you don’t, there’s few people better to get your obsession started than Jesse Jarnow, author of the new Yo La Tengo biography Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock. He’s compiled a playlist of Yo La Tengo’s best songs about music, and here’s what he had to say about them:
“Ira Kaplan may be the rare specimen who failed as a rock critic only to succeed as a musician. And it’s not that he failed, exactly, because–as a columnist for the Soho Weekly News and a record reviews editor for New York Rocker–he was on the frontlines of indie rock’s birth, and covered it quite handily. But Kaplan didn’t truly find his voice until founding Yo La Tengo in 1984 with girlfriend Georgia Hubley. Though known for bracing songs seemingly filled with the intimacies of their relationship, perhaps Yo La Tengo’s most personal writing comes when the subject of their lyrics is music itself. Perhaps. At the very least, the band’s lyrics occasionally read like truly excellent rock criticism in the Lester Bangs school of personal revelation. Plus they’ve got a beat and you can dance to them.” – Jesse Jarnow
1.) “Paul Is Dead” (1995)
In which hearing a muffled “Sympathy For the Devil” out of a passerby’s headphones leads to a gorgeously flowing melody, three-part harmonies, and one of Kaplan’s most confidential vocal deliveries.
2.) “The Last Days of Disco” (2000)
Reevaluating a piece of dance-pop while falling in love.
3.) “Drug Test” (1989)
Striking a mood by staking out a particular emotional relationship with the Grateful Dead’s Wake of the Flood.
4.) “We’re An American Band” (1997)
Audaciously appropriating Grand Funk Railroad for an ode to unglamorous road stories of small-ball rock stardom and Flamin’ Groovies covers. Every bit the theme song the title implies.
5.) “Evanescent Psychic Pez Drop” (1995)
“They say that rare evanescent psychic Pez drop has gone out of contemporary life. But I Know Different,” Lester Bangs wrote in a 1971 Creem review the Guess Who. What this has to do with the Yo La Tengo tune (from a 1995 split 7-inch with Stereolab) is up for grabs. Maybe its krautrock vibes approximate what’s been missing. Maybe you should just read the Bangs review, on p. 112 of Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung. It’s great.
6.) “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” (2000)
Though the title is a reference a Troy McClure telethon, here, the pop singer Tony Orlando stars in a surreal fantasia by drummer Georgia Hubley, as far out as an rock-crit gonzo tangent.
7.) “Meet the Mets” (2002)
During one of their annual WFMU pledge-a-thons, Yo La Tengo takes a hearty stab at the official theme song of the New York Mets, their favorite baseball team, who provided the origin of the Yo La Tengo’s name, and whose history–in fact–resides in Yo La Tengo’s DNA. Which (hey!) you can read about in the introduction to Big Day Coming, available in a free preview via Amazon.
8.) “Big Day Coming” (1993)
The semi-obscure Stones’ tune “Sittin’ On A Fence” stands in for a moment of innocence as the future rushes in. “I can hardly wait,” Kaplan sings.
And this is to say nothing of pop culture poetry (“Moonrock Mambo”), evocative references to Robert Frank’s children (“Pablo and Andrea”), British actors (“Tom Courtenay”), Dylan tunes (“From A Motel 6″), and beyond that reads more like a deeply personal constellation of references than a litany of cool-dude name-checks.
Jesse Jarnow is the author of Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock