Review Summary: Timeless album from shoegazin' New Jersey threesome.
It’s hard not to feel the lonesome draw of the dimly lit road pictured on the cover of Yo La Tengo’s Painful. It’s also hard to say what about the image is so depressing, and yet so attractive at the as well, but it’s there all the same.
The band Yo La Tengo is made up of guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan, his wife, Georgia Hubley on drums/vocals, and James McNew on bass and keyboards. When they released Painful in 1993, the band was known to critics as a force to be reckoned with, despite meager sales. And anyone who has heard them could surely argue that if any band in the world can capture the emotion of Painful’s cover art, Yo La Tengo might just be that band. Taking a few tricks out of The Velvet Underground’s sonic cookbook, the band mixes atonal drones with off kilter pop melodies to create some of the coolest music around. Ira, a bona fide master of fuzz guitar, uses his instrument to create other worldly noises, and does in a way that might bring [My Bloody Valentine mastermind] Kevin Shields to mind. And the rest of the band hardly fights off this notion. With her opaque coos, Georgia could make for a very convincing Belinda Butcher (though at times her vocals echo that of [early Velvet Underground chanteuse] Nico.) James’ fuzzy bass parts and droning organ lines only add to Yo La’s distinct shoegazing formula, often times holding down the melodic fort while Ira goes off on noisy guitar tangents.
On [Yo La Tengo’s late career masterpiece] I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, the band would come to a stage in their career where sonic experimentation was wholly common (with the band exploring folk, dub and electronica frequently through out the record) but in their Painful stages, Tengo stick primarily with the guitar based noise pop that would eventually be their calling card. The fuzz is in full effect on I Heard You Looking, though you might not expect it coming when the song begins, with Ira playing a longingly mellow guitar line all by himself. It comes though. In fact, you might not even realize the song has evolved into the fuzzy mess of melodies is has until long after it does, because Yo La Tengo just sneak up on you like that. Unlike I Can Hear The Heart or the band’s 2006 release, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Kick Your Ass, Painful only features two songs that cross over the 7:00 line, I Heard You Looking being one, and album opener Big Day Coming being the other. It’s refreshing for a relatively new listener (like myself) to hear the band in a shorter form; despite how good the music, 40 minutes is a whole lot easier to deal with than 80.
The first of two tracks with the exact same title, Big Day Coming clocks in at 7:05, making it the longest track on the album. For the most part the song is based around a central organ part, and a melancholy guitar line, and fleshes it’s self out into one of the most ambient songs of the album (if not the band’s career.) In a bizarre contrast, the second incarnation of the band’s depressing, inward looking ode to starting a band sees it receiving a complete facelift. Though the lyrics are the same, when Kaplan moans “Let’s wake up the neighborhood, let’s turn up our amps” in the former, it seems so pure and innocent, hopeful and naïve, while on the latter it seems so snotty and bitter. The addition of drums is perhaps the most obvious change between the two songs, musically at least, but if I was a better musician I’m sure I could tell you more about the song’s similarities, in detail and all that stuff. But in short, one version is quiet and sad, and the other is noisy and atonal, and somewhere in the middle is the rest of Painful.
It’s all pretty much brilliant by the way.