For many audiophiles and critics, Yo La Tengo symbolizes the very apex of '90s-era, Matador Records-style indie rock. Indeed, the Hoboken, N.J., trio's 1997 I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One was ahead of the sonic curve. Blending elements of psych-rock, shoegaze-noise and electronica, the landmark album laid the groundwork for an approach on which bands would later capitalize. (Listen to the Flaming Lips' Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots and Mogwai's Rock Action for proof.)
Glorious as I Can Hear the Heart sounds 16 years later, don't expect Yo La Tengo to start performing the album in its entirety for any curated festivals.
"If you scour the Internet for news stories, you won't find us doing that," Ira Kaplan, the band's co-founder and singer-guitarist, confirmed during a recent phone chat. "I prefer the random, unanticipated aspects of a live performance. Anything that removes that enjoyment, I as an audience member don't want any part of."
Kaplan even concedes that when he sees a band performing, he gets angry if there's a too-visible set list onstage. He'll willfully try to ignore it.
"You know how when you're at a show and you hear a band idly hitting their guitar strings before the next song?" he says. "I love that part. I relish the mystery of what's coming next."
There's little mystery in predicting the overall quality of a new Yo La Tengo release. The band—which also includes Kaplan's wife, Georgia Hubley (drums, vocals), and James McNew (bass)—has always been a critical darling, its acclaim growing inexorably even if its commercial potential has yet to explode. Not every band manages a near-perfect score from the Pitchfork music webzine, as did Yo La Tengo. So when the band released its 13th disc, Fade—which brims with cosmic romanticism and dreamy rock textures—to unanimous praise, it wasn't surprising.
But don't insist to Kaplan, 56, that Fade returns his band to its pre-aughts heights.
"I don't think of the records that way," he says with a sigh. "We're just making music. To worry about whether or not our new album matches up against our earlier efforts—that just satisfies a sports-fandom part of my brain. To get some kind of ratings or score or comparison or comeback isn't what this is about."
What Fade seems to be about is the stirring power of love and its fleeting protection from death's inevitability. You can hear the poignancy in the way the strings and trumpet and trombone and acoustic guitars and sleigh bells and hypnotic drum pattern all weave together for an ascending chord structure in "Before We Run." It's a song so lush it sounds like it could have only been made in the studio.
"For this record, we actually did a lot of recording in Hoboken well in advance and before working with [producer] John McEntire in Chicago. We brought the demos along with us on the drive to Illinois to re-evaluate them. But the arrangement was completely intact. We simply replaced the fake strings with real ones and doubled the horn parts."
As a general rule, Yo La Tengo never has a master plan and prefers working in the moment. After the horn pattern was established in "Before We Run," the song basically began to emerge on its own.
So did others. The desert highway-driving "Ohm"—a one-chord yet deeply melodic song about change and saying goodbye to bad times and moving on—sounds suspiciously like the band's mantra.
"It's not accidental that all three of us sing on that song," Kaplan said. "It was completely written before we added lyrics, and we'd already figured out we were going to sing together. That's why the lyrics are less individualistic and more collective. Or manifesto-ish."
The affecting "I'll Be Around" is quiet on the surface, yet there's much emotion roiling beneath the soft acoustic guitar chords.
"We had some of the music done and it was louder at first," Kaplan said. "But it wasn't registering. We felt it hadn't found its reason to exist. Our writing process is to have all these ideas and fragments and then let some fall by the wayside if they don't work. Others we keep tinkering with. Then came another idea, and we asked 'What if we strip this way down?' All of a sudden, the song seemed to really take off."
Despite his band's consistently positive reviews, Kaplan never worries about the writing process or writer's block. He trusts his instincts. If his band's songs don't emerge until the third listen, so be it.
"A song doesn't have to land with full force the first time you hear it," he said. "I like records that reveal themselves gradually over time."
Would Kaplan like to trade some critical acclaim for a bit more commercial success?
"Until we find a magic lamp in the street, it's a question we don't have to answer," he said. "Observing other bands, we see it helps to locate what's good in your life and focus on it. Sure, a band's dissatisfaction with being less popular can drive them to be better. In our case it's not true. We think about what we're enjoying so we can feel more confident and productive. We never obsess about what's going wrong."