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Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew, also known as YO LA TENGO, sound like no other band. This is not because they're contrarians, but because they're artists. The band's quest for musical release is inextricably tied to a sense of community. It is suffused with the hope borne of a realization that, if music can transcend the fractious or mundane realities of life, then we can, and must, rise above the troubles that divide us. They embody these ideas in dealings with fellow musicians, and have worked with an incredibly diverse range of artists, from Jad Fair to Ray Davies.
It's been said that while Yo La Tengo is not a jazz combo, they think like jazz musicians. Indeed, their penchant for surprise stretches beyond their well-documented work with free-jazz ensembles Other Dimensions In Music and the Sun Ra Arkestra. Their annual covers-by-request WFMU fundraiser has a huge audience and lots of laughs (and has resulted in a CD compilation released in 2006, called Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics), but is also a shocking display of improvisational skill (and ridiculously encyclopedic knowledge of pop history). In July 2004, they performed at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC, improvising a soundtrack to a live light show by artists Joshua White and Gary Panter, which led to their using a Panter painting as the cover of I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, released in 2006. I Am Not Afraid has everything that ever made Yo La Tengo great, but elevated to new heights, from the remarkable orchestral chamber piece "Black Flowers" to the garage-punk rave-up "Watch Out For Me Ronnie." If there is one constant about Yo La Tengo, it's that this famously restless band continues to broaden its horizons.
Clearly, Yo La Tengo acts like no other band, either. They've scored four films (Junebug, Game 6, Old Joy, and Shortbus) and turned what could have been an inspired one-off - their score to the experimental underwater films of Jean Painleve - into a well-received CD release and frequent repeat performance. They have also recorded The Simpsons theme for one episode, and played on a Gilmore Girls finale.
As a trio, Yo La Tengo is a complex engine, but they're a completely natural one, tearing through the underbrush like a fully focused prehistoric creature. As much as spontaneity is built into the construction of their sonic world, everything is considered. From whispered ballads to punkish verve, from intricate arrangements to the heady allure of happenstance, Yo La Tengo - as their name suggests - has it all. Whether one thinks of life as being brief or interminable, the clock is always ticking. We must be ever grateful for any endeavors that distort our sense of time. That is one of the many things that Yo La Tengo does.
- David Greenberger