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Ira Kaplan: Five Songs I Love Right Now

The Yo La Tengo singer on five songs he loves, from the Afro Blues Quintet to Gastr Del Sol

Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo performs at Heimathafen Neukoelln on May 7, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.

Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo performs at Heimathafen Neukoelln on May 7, 2018 in Berlin, Germany.

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The Yo La Tengo singer-guitarist, whose band just released its 15th studio album, There’s a Riot Going On, is digging a diverse group of tunes at the moment. “They aren’t really by acts that get mentioned in Rolling Stone much,” says Kaplan.

(Yo La Tengo are currently on tour in Europe; they’ll return to the U.S. for some West Coast dates later this month.)

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Benny Spellman, “I Feel Good” 

Benny Spelllman is best known for a record he didn’t make: He’s the voice going “My mother in-law” on Ernie K-Doe’s record of the same name. I guess there was some bitterness that Ernie didn’t credit him on the record. There’s a lot of other Benny Spellman records where he sings in that cadence and melody to remind you that he’s the guy. Anyway, Allen Toussaint is the man behind a lot of his records and writing. He produced them and sang on them as well. He’s not really talked about much as a singer, but his great voice just comes through. You can really hear him loud, doing the backups on this great, uptempo R&B song

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Antietam, “Birdwatching”

Antietam have been our pals as long as our band existed. Our first show ever was at Maxwell’s [the Hoboken, N.J. music venue]. We threw a party and Yo La Tengo played and Antietam played. It might have been their third show. Tara Key, their guitar player, was the fourth member of our group when we appeared in I Shot Andy Warhol as the Velvet Underground. We’ve covered their songs over the years. Even more importantly than any of that, we’re always been very inspired by the way those guys have continued to churn out new and interesting music with very little support from an audience. It seemingly doesn’t deter them one bit, which is pretty amazing. This is an instrumental, which is exciting because Tara just wails on the guitar. She goes nuts.

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Ray Bryant, “Pata Pata”

This is another instrumental, for the vocal song “Pata Pata,” which was Miriam Makeba’s first hit record. I didn’t like it much at the time, which is more evidence of my rotten taste in music. I don’t know Ray Bryant’s background, but a few years ago I found a copy of his version of “Mrs. Robinson,” which was so amazing that I got a bunch more of his singles in recent years. I was like, “Where did he come up with that jazzy take on ‘Mrs. Robinson?”

“Pata Pata” is more obvious, because the song lends itself precisely to what he does: It’s an Afropop hit record, and you can hear it in your head when you hear the elements. “Mrs Robinson” was a little more stunning.

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Gastr del Sol, “The Seasons Reverse” 

That’s just a perfect song. I initially became aware of David Grubbs when he was in Squirrel Bait. The music he made after that was less accessible. I remember having difficult accessing it, but I was eventually given a copy of this record, and I put it on expecting to be challenged by it. I did know how talented both he and Jim O’Rourke are. I think it’s Grubbs himself playing this really hypnotic acoustic guitar part on this song.

At the end, it morphs into this field recording he made in France when he saw these kids setting off firecrackers. When they are aware he’s watching them, they get nervous and think they’re doing something wrong, so they stop, and he’s trying to tell them to keep going. But they don’t speak English and he doesn’t speak French. You hear this whole tableau occurring, and then the song kind of fades out. It’s a really cool ending to a great song.

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