Incorporating everything from cocktail jazz to psychedelic noise freakouts to gorgeous acoustic tunes into their albums, Yo La Tengo have been one of the most restless and most consistently good bands of the past 25 years. The trio — led by Hoboken, New Jersey, bohemians and husband and wife team Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley — have been pegged as a critics' band, but their warm, open-armed sound has helped them develop one of the biggest followings in indie rock.
Before forming Yo La Tengo, Kaplan spent years as a rock critic, writing for New York Rocker and The SoHo News. Kaplan formed the band with his wife, singer/drummer Georgia Hubley, the daughter of Oscar-winning animators (Mister Magoo). Inspired amateurs whose early albums were tributes to their record collections, Kaplan and Hubley emerged in 1984 from the active indie-rock scene that revolved around the Hoboken club Maxwell's.
The group's name means "I've Got It!" in Spanish and was taken from a story about the 1968 New York Mets outfielders, who used to the phrase to claim fly balls to accomodate Venzuelan Elio Chacon, who spoke no English. Over more than two decades, the band—which has existed with various line-ups centered around Kaplan and Hubley—have continually explored new musical territory, more interested in innovation that mainstream success.
Kaplan and Hubley were joined by a variety of bassists and guitarists prior to recording the 1986 debut album Ride the Tiger, a roots-oriented collection that featured guitarist Dave Schramm and bassist Mike Lewis, with production from ex-Mission of Burma bassist Clint Conley. The band's revolving door spun again for the following year's New Wave Hot Dogs, with bassist Stephan Wichnewski briefly onboard. Yo La Tengo, whose embrace of both feedback-driven raveups and folksier fare have prompted comparisons to the Velvet Underground, made the influence explicit with a version of John Cale and Lou Reed's "It's Alright (The Way That You Live)".
President Yo La Tengo was produced by guest bassist Gene Holder (of kindred pop spirits the dB's), with Schramm back to play on 1990's Fakebook, an acoustic-driven mostly covers album with selections from the Kinks, Gene Clark, the Escorts, and fellow New York rockers The Scene Is Now. Two years later, May I Sing With Me marked both a return to the band's noisier instincts and the arrival of new bassist James McNew (ex-Christmas), whose presence formalized Yo La Tengo as a trio.
The 1993 album Painful displayed a greater range of tones and textures, as the musicians cultivated their knack for keyboard and guitar-laden atmospherics. They continued in that direction for Electr-O-Pura, which mixed clever pop writing and balladry with experimental pieces. The rarities double-disc Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo surveyed the band's penchant for quirky cover tunes, collecting tracks from various singles, EPs, and compilations, and boasting a humorous telephone collaboration with Austin, Texas, songwriter/eccentric Daniel Johnston on his song "Speeding Motorcycle." The group also made its big-screen debut portraying "the Factory house band" in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol.
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, from 1997, was a major critical success and became its bestseller, approaching sales of 75,000 copies. Three years later, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, was a subdued, lyrical meditation on domestic life that was widely interpreted to be about Kaplan and Hubley's marriage, and featured a cover of George McRae's 1974 disco tune "You Can Have It All." It was their first album to appear on the Billboard 200, reaching Number 138.
In the early 2000s, Yo La Tengo continued its ecclectic path, recording an instrumental score for a series of underwater documentaries by Jean Painleve in 2001, and an EP with covers of Sun Ra's "Nuclear War" in 2002. In 2003, they released their tenth album, Summer Sun, which was even more subdued than And Then Nothing... , leaving some critics to yearn for more the band's noisier side. Still, the album reached Number 113 on the charts, their highest position yet.
In 2003, the band teamed with Yoko Ono on Wig in a Box: Songs from and Inspired by Hedwig and the Angry Inch, to benefit the Harvey Milk High School in San Francisco. In 2005, they released a compilation of favored songs, Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs: 1985-2003, and composed scores fo several films, including 2005's Junebug and Game 6, and 2006's Short Bus and Old Joy.
Later in 2006, the band released an eleventh LP, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, which included richer, fuller arrangements, many with strings and horns. It was well-received by critics and fans alike, reaching Number 66 on the album chart. In 2009, the band released the similarly styled Popular Songs, which reached Number 58 on the album charts.
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Evan Serpick contributed to this story.
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