Famous UK DJ John Peel once explained why he counted The Fall as his favorite group: “They are always different; they are always the same.” Much could be said of the 25 (that’s right, hipsters, twenty-flippin’-five) year career of Yo La Tengo, whose unmalicious but complete avoidance of our town ends this Monday night.
The husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, along with bassist James McNew, formed in 1984 (McNew joined in 1991) and they have been with Matador Records since 1993’s “Painful,” which the group and critics agree was the turning point after five albums into its current mature sound. Those earlier records were good, of course, but the ones that came after were fantastic, displaying an encyclopedic knowledge of music and history, blending Velvet Underground simplicity, Krautrock dronage, bucolic alt-folk and whatever strikes their fancy.
Known for taking their time delivering records, Yo La Tengo returned last year with “Popular Songs,” an ironic-ya-think title that featured excursions into something like a pop single (“Periodically Triple or Double”) and even a stab at Motown R&B (“If It’s True”) that starts off like the best Four Tops song you’ve never heard. As the album progresses, the songs get longer, ending with the 15-minute closer “And the Glitter is Gone.”
The fans expect the jams, and each album so far has delivered at least one.
“Most of the songs were 15 minutes at some point,” Kaplan explains. “And some songs seem to be about their length than anything. It’s about immersion in that mood. It’s like a long Russian novel, that sprawling aspect of it.”
Lyrics happen last, written by whoever is singing lead on the song. “It’s an intense agony,” he laughs. “We’re typically in the recording struggling to finish lyrics. It’s something we never improved at. Our procrastination skills are too refined now.”
But don’t let that suggest, Kaplan warns, that the lyrics aren’t important. “It’s not something we toss off ? One of the things we love about making music is that it’s always changing, and even when you play a song over and over again, you never play it the same way. But the aspect of the lyrics is that they’re done. And I don’t think that’s our favorite way of working.”
Though identified with Hoboken, N.J., the band have long recorded in Nashville, with producer Roger Moutenot. But, says Kaplan, a number of factors resulted in the band turning their rehearsal space into a studio. McNew and Kaplan slowly added more and more instruments and gear to their space for both practice and storage. Then a series of soundtrack work — including for “Junebug” and “Old Joy” — found them using the space more to record. The majority of “Popular Songs” were recorded in Hoboken, and they convinced Moutenot to come to them this time.
Matador Records take a hands-off approach and trusts the band, which is why the band has stayed with them so long. They’ve never been pushed for a “single,” so to speak. Which brings us back to the poppiness of “Periodically Triple or Double,” which would sound almost normal if not for the a) kinda gross food-in-mouth music video that accompanies it and, b) the very strange section in the middle, for only 10 seconds, where it sounds like Martians have jammed the radio signal.
“That little section of the song where it changes time for a moment, we worked on that for a ridiculous amount of time,” says Kaplan. “We were trying to chase after something, not a sound in our heads, but it still didn’t seem to fit the way we wanted it to, so we kept working on it, working on it, in the writing, in the recording and then again in the mixing.
“Now I’ve described it, it sounds so wrong.”
And yet, it sounds so right. And that sums up Yo La Tengo.
YO LA TENGO
When: 8 p.m. Monday
Where: Velvet Jones, 423 State St.