My heart's reflection

Genius plus love still equals Yo La Tengo

"We spent a little longer on it," Kaplan admits. "I think once we knew the songs were going to take a different kind of shape, [end up on] the slow side of things...No, let me rewind a little bit. What was different? Not that much. That's the thing. I mean, I think the results are different, but our approach was kind of similar. I think some of the use of instruments on this record is different from previous records. But it wasn't like a self-conscious thought that, 'On this record, let's do this differently.' The songs led us to these things, and the studio had instruments that we were having fun trying to play. None of which strikes me as that different from the previous way we've made records."

Like their previous albums, And Then Nothing... certainly wasn't intended to impress Kaplan's former peers, although it's hard to imagine that not happening. If anything, the reverse is true: Kaplan is nothing more than a fan himself, someone whose passion for music led him first to music journalism and later to writing his own songs, anything to get him closer to the feeling listening to records and seeing bands perform gave him. The only thing Kaplan really learned when he was a music critic is that he wanted to be playing the songs himself. He wanted to be the one who gave other people that feeling.

But he always remained a fan. The point is driven home by the diverse array of covers that appear in the band's live sets and on its records, including songs by The Kinks, Wire, Daniel Johnston, The Urinals, The Ramones, Jackson Browne, The Beach Boys, and dozens of others. They play the songs they'd want to hear if they were in the audience watching Yo La Tengo, or any other band. "I've always enjoyed when I go see bands and they pull out a cover song that seems to come out of left field," Kaplan says. "And I'm sure that's where the inspiration to do that ourselves comes from."

Guess which one is Ira Kaplan. Maybe the dude with the big head? Naw, not really.
Christian Lantry
Guess which one is Ira Kaplan. Maybe the dude with the big head? Naw, not really.

In the early part of Yo La Tengo's career, many assumed the band's inspiration was derived from one source: the Velvet Underground. It didn't take a giant leap of the imagination to make the connection: The group's droning songs and Kaplan's mumbled delivery definitely bore more than a little resemblance to Lou Reed and company. (When Yo La Tengo subbed for the Velvet Underground in the 1996 film I Shot Andy Warhol, it wasn't much of a stretch.) And if the band wasn't being accused of being the Velvet Underground's mirror, it was being charged with resting much of its weight on other people's songs. To some, Yo La Tengo was a glorified cover band, spending too much time digging in the bins for obscurities and not enough writing its own material.

While there may have been some truth to both allegations at one time, there isn't now. The group's VU fetish has long since been abandoned, and after 1990's Fakebook -- which counted only six originals among its 16 tracks -- the band has mainly stuck to its own songs, at least on record. As the albums since Fakebook (May I Sing With Me, 1993's Painful, 1995's Electr-O-Pura, and 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One) have shown, Yo La Tengo is among the most consistent groups around, not worrying about singles as they continue to hit doubles and triples. The band finds the sweet spot between challenging and accessible each time out, as capable of writing three-chord, three-minute gems such as "Sugarcube" (off I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One) as seven-minute organ-and-feedback duels like "Big Day Coming" (off Painful). As Kaplan says, they never intend for songs to end up so far apart on the spectrum. They're just glad to remember all of the songs they write.

"We've gotten into this way of writing that we've always enjoyed," he says. "Writing isn't exactly what we're doing. A lot of times we're just playing and letting things take shape. Writing on the road, were that to happen, seems more like a solitary pursuit: one person in a hotel room with a guitar working on a song, which just isn't the way we work. We have played things at sound check, just kind of jamming, that we wish we'd remember. But we don't -- the tape's not rolling. In a sense, we're writing in disappearing ink."

Though the band has established that its own songs can hold their own as well as The Kinks and Bob Dylan songs that popped up on earlier albums such as 1986's Ride the Tiger and 1989's President Yo La Tengo, for Kaplan, the three members of Yo La Tengo are still the people he writes for. He doesn't have to prove anything to anyone but them. Kaplan says he's happy as long as he can continue to surprise McNew and Hubley, and especially himself. As he learned on And Then Nothing..., even after more than 15 years, it can still happen.

"Two of the songs that are on the record -- 'You Can Have It All' and 'Tired Hippo' -- we had recorded for a John Peel session a while ago," Kaplan explains. "And it was really Georgia who was most interested in us rerecording those songs for the record. I think I probably felt like, 'Well, you know, we already did those songs. Let's do things we haven't done yet.' But they came out so differently than the versions on the Peel session that it became sort of doubly exciting to hear the way the songs just kept growing and developing. Those two [stand out] because we had cut kind of a clear benchmark with the earlier recordings, but all of them are like that."

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