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His appearance, his name, his voice -- everything about Ira Kaplan seems to belong to a high-school history teacher, or maybe a librarian. Intimidation doesn't even begin to enter into it; at best, the Yo La Tengo singer-guitarist looks to be capable of sending an unruly student to detention. Maybe. Still, Kaplan has a reputation that precedes him. He's a difficult man to talk to, the kind of guy who's too smart to answer half the questions, too private to answer the rest. It's a notoriety that immediately places any interviewer on the defensive, putting one in the position of trying to avoid Kaplan's succinct critiques ("Man, that was a bad question"), or worse, his most frustrating tactic: complete and utter silence. A former writer himself, Kaplan knows that interviewers use silence as a way to get someone to say more than they might want to, so he uses it against them, calling their bluff.
On the phone from his Hoboken, New Jersey, home, which he shares with wife and bandmate Georgia Hubley, Kaplan proves that at least one part of his reputation for being difficult is based in fact. When he finishes answering a question -- whether it's about Yo La Tengo's new album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out or filming a video with Mr. Show's Bob Odenkirk and David Cross -- he's finished; there will be no more A until there's another Q. He makes it clear from the very beginning that this is an interrogation, not a conversation between two people. Which, as long as you understand and accept the ground rules, isn't a terribly arduous process. The uncomfortable silences bracketing each question and answer become almost routine after half an hour, as necessary to the interview as the things Kaplan actually says.
Contrary to popular belief, Kaplan's rock-crit past surfaces only in situations such as this, when he has to promote a new album. He would, perhaps, agree his pre-band career helps him turn these chats to his favor, if only because he's aware of all the tricks. He remembers the ways and means involved in forcing people to spill secrets they don't wish to share, coercing them into veering off the script. Though Kaplan insists his former occupation has no bearing on his current one, he admits it does come in handy when reading the reviews following each new album's release, picking out the ones in which it's obvious the writer might have listened to the album but never really heard it.
Kaplan laughs knowingly when it's suggested to him that the publicity department at Matador Records (the label that has released the last five Yo La Tengo records, including 1996's double-disc retrospective Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo) has basically already written many of the reviews. He is mindful of the fact that, because of pressure to meet deadlines, the bio accompanying advance copies of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out -- laden with quotes from venerable jazz critic Whitney Balliett and references to Ornette Coleman and Don Cherry -- will more than likely be regurgitated in some form or other by dozens of lazy critics. He'll just look for the ones referring to the disc as "Yo La Tengo's jazz album."
"It's not some orchestrated plan," Kaplan says. "We have a double seven-inch that we just released of two jazz songs with three horn players. I think with some of that stuff in the air, I think that's where some of that bio came from. You know, I do think that the influence of my writing career has been overstated. In fact, to me the thing that's really relevant about it is that I'm much more aware of that kind of stuff, the bio appearing in reviews and all that stuff. But as far as the band goes, Georgia and I -- and then later on, all three of us -- make decisions based on what it would be like if we were in the audience, not lessons learned as a writer."
It's an assumption Yo La Tengo has been battling since Kaplan and Hubley formed the band in Hoboken in 1984. (Longtime bassist James McNew joined the group prior to the recording of 1992's May I Sing With Me.) The knock on the group has always been that it makes records to write about, not listen to, that Yo La Tengo plays to critics rather than to fans. And Then Nothing..., more than any of the group's previous efforts, is too personal for that to be true, too close to home to be aimed for a critic's ear. The disc seems to be telling the story of Kaplan and Hubley's marriage, from their first encounter ("Saturday") to their last good-night kiss ("Night Falls on Hoboken"). And if Hubley and Kaplan aren't the main characters of And Then Nothing..., as Kaplan later says of his sister-in-law Emily Hubley's film Pigeon Within (for which Yo La Tengo provided the soundtrack), "It might not be her story, but it's the story of somebody's life."
However, the songs on the album feel too genuine to be about someone else's life. Hubley and Kaplan sing with each other, to each other, with a kind of I-really-mean-it sincerity that's hard to invent. As the music stays hushed and lush for the most part (save for the sprawling "Cherry Chapstick"), Hubley and Kaplan lyrically renew their vows, even making George McRae's disco-era obscurity "You Can Have It All" sound as if it was written specifically for them. And Then Nothing... is a beautiful album, demanding your attention in the subtlest of ways, daring you to invade a married couple's life. It almost sounds as if Hubley and Kaplan wrote these songs for no one else to hear but each other. It's a labor of love, quite literally.