Since their emergence as college radio and critical faves in the late ‘80s, Yo La Tengo have been among the most revered and influential standard-bearers of American independent rock music. Though they’ve they’ve been regularly releasing music of consistently high quality since 1989’s President Yo La Tengo, they’ve never transcended cult status, but their role seems to suit them, and they’ve availed themselves fully of the creative freedom that comes with relative obscurity.
Their new album, There’s A Riot Going On, is due for release in mid-March, but we’re sharing four of its songs for your enjoyment today. The album is a departure for the band in method and in style. The album is longtime bassist James McNew’s first recording credit outside the self-recorded solo work he’s released under the band name “Dump.” He recorded the band bit by bit in their rehearsal studio, with no music written in advance, combining improvisations with unused ideas, sometimes going years between tracking sessions on some of the songs. Though YLT are most readily associated with noisy back-to-basics indie rock, Riot flows dreamily, like a post-rock or shoegaze album, recalling the hazy and elemental passages that cropped up much on 1997’s wonderful I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One.
The process sounds like the painstaking collaging Mark Hollis and Tim Freise-Greene did to make Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, and There’s A Riot Going On is as uncannily coherent as that experimental masterpiece. That could be due to the final mix by John McEntire (My Dad Is Dead, Bastro, Tortoise, Gastr Del Sol, Red Krayola…) The band has never played any of these songs live, and are currently working out how to do so before their tour begins at the end of March.
Before we get to the music, we really need to address the title—obviously there’s a nod to Sly and the Family Stone’s difficult, cynical, and dejected (but still badass) 1971 LP There’s a Riot Goin’ On. If there’s a musical or lyrical connection intended, I am unable to detect it. The YLT press release offers this:
In 1971, when the nation appeared to be on the brink of violently coming apart, Sly and the Family Stone released There’s a Riot Goin’ On, an album of dark, brooding energy. Now, under similar circumstances, Yo La Tengo have issued a record with the same name but with a different force, an album that proposes an alternative to anger and despair.
For years Yo La Tengo’s Hanukkah shows were a holiday staple for festive souls in the New York City area. It didn’t take place every year, but quite often Ira, Georgia, and James would dedicate all 8 nights of the Jewish holiday to gigs at their home base, Maxwell’s in nearby Hoboken, New Jersey. Sometimes a musically inclined comedian like Todd Barry or Fred Armisen was spotted behind the drum kit.
Seeing as how it was Yo La Tengo doing the hosting, the shows would frequently feature surprise guest appearances to give the spectators a rare tingle. In 2002 David Byrne sang with the band, in 2007 it was Alex Chilton who supplied the extra-special treat. One time the guys from Mission of Burma showed up. When Maxwell’s saw new owners take over and cease hosting live music shows in 2013, the future of the shows was cast in doubt.
This year marks the first time in five years that YLT is playing their Hanukkah shows—the venue they have selected to carry the torch is the Bowery Ballroom (an excellent substitute IMO). Earlier this week Jeff Tweedy and his son Spencer joined the band, and last night Michael Shannon popped up onstage and delivered a predictably galvanizing rendition of “Ghost Rider” by Suicide. Armisen was helping out on the drums.
Due to his willingness to be strikingly weird, off-putting, or sinister, Shannon has become one of the main character actors of note over the last decade or so. He was nominated as Best Supporting Actor for his work in Revolutionary Road and Nocturnal Animals. He gained wider recognition as General Zod in the current DC franchise, and has also become associated with the movies of Jeff Nichols. I’ve been lucky enough to see Shannon in plays several times, and the man never disappoints.
The Stinky Puffs’ Simon Fair Timony was “underground rock’s coolest adolescent,” according to Trouser Press, which also said the boy had been “raised among the Residents.” At the age of seven, Timony could have been the subject of his own rock band “family tree” poster. His parents, Tom and Sheena(h), had both worked at Ralph Records, and his stepfather was Jad Fair of Half Japanese. Cody Linn Ranaldo, son of Sonic Youth’s Lee, played guitar and maracas in the Stinky Puffs. Kurt Cobain loved them.
Enriched, perhaps, by his line of Stinky Clothes (available in “men’s blazer,” “ladies’ jacket,” turtleneck, pants, and “dress skirt” styles), Simon Timony hired one hell of a band for his set at the first Yoyo A Go Go festival in July 1994. Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo, Krist Novoselic and Dave Grohl of Nirvana, and stepdad Jad backed Simon on “Buddies Aren’t Butts,” “Menendez’ Killed Their Parents,” “I’ll Love You Anyway” and “I Am Gross/ No You’re Not.” Newspapers and rock media reported that Novoselic and Grohl had reunited to play with a ten-year-old in their first show together since Cobain’s suicide. The New York Times mentioned it that August, when you could see Von LMO at CBGB for $8 or Jad Fair and the Stinky Puffs on the Coney Island Boardwalk for $6.
Kurt Cobain, Simon Timony and Snakefinger on the cover of ‘Songs and Advice’
After the San Francisco Giants won the 2012 World Series, Timony was badly hurt trying to stop a mob from destroying a Muni bus and its passengers; SF Weekly says the city rewarded him with free Muni rides for life. His current band is Gaviotas.
In the ‘70s, Warner Brothers records released an amazing series of compilations. They were officially dubbed the “Loss Leaders” for exactly-what-it-says-on-the-box reasons; for a paltry $2, you’d get a double LP (some were single-platter, at least one was a triple), packaged with an ample book of liner notes and stuffed with songs from superstars, cult artists and new signings alike. The idea was that though you bought it for the huge hit or rare track by Neil Young, Fleetwood Mac, Rod Stewart, or whoever, you’d also end up hearing left-field stuff by the Fugs, Deaf School, Talking Heads, Wild Man Fischer, Captain Beefheart, et al ad infinitum. If any of the lesser-known tracks connected with listeners, that would translate into more records sold at full price. They made dozens of those comps, and a great many of them were compiled and liner-noted by Barry “Dr. Demento” Hansen. They were available by mail-order between 1969 and 1980, when the campaign abruptly and sadly ended.
(It merits mentioning here that the final Loss Leader, 1980’s Troublemakers, features Gang of Four, PiL, DEVO, Wire, and John Cale, and so might be of extremely high interest to a hell of a lot of this blog’s followers. I’d even venture to guess that that very comp could be the very record that made a few of our readers realize they were mutants to begin with.)
Warner resurrected the “Loss Leader” idea in name only for a couple of giveaway comps in 1995 and 1999, but the cheap-o label sampler idea was such an obvious winner that indie/underground labels began to take up that torch the ’80s, and some of those collections have become legendary. In 1997, Matador records released a ridiculously generous 2XCD comp called What’s Up Matador, which sold at a very low retail price. The idea was the same; Teenage Fanclub, Pavement and Guided By Voices would sell the comp to people who would hopefully then get hip to quality lesser-knowns like Bardo Pond, S.F Seals, and Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 (and by the way, getting hip to Thinking Fellers Union Local 282 wouldn’t be such a terrible use of your time), and hopefully those smaller bands enlarged their audiences.
That comp came out when I was neckdeep in my college radio years, and naturally it got a ton of spins during my airshift, but what I wasn’t aware of—because I was a dumb dipshit who never even once bothered to read the liner notes—was that What’s Up Matador was also a completely bonkers video compilation. No mere digest of promo clips, the video was shot as a fake children’s TV show, with preposterous “educational” segments by the label’s roster of weirdo musicians, hosted by the then-renowned TV smiler Bill Boggs (I recognized him from a late night satellite dish infomercial). Segments include a pedalboard demo by Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan, a marvelous storybook history of Matador illustrated by Railroad Jerk’s Marcellus Hall, a damn near obscene theremin demonstration by Jon Spencer, and a hilariously stilted fake interview with Liz Phair. The video was written and directed by Clay Tarver, guitarist for the Matador band Chavez (one of my top-tier favorite overlooked ‘90s bands, as it happens), who was kind enough to take some time to talk with me about it.
CLAY TARVER: I had been doing some video work, and when Matador was going to put together this compilation, I pitched this video idea because I wanted to do more of that. I really racked my brain about what would be the most ridiculous thing to do, and the idea I started with was to do a sort of Reading Rainbow type show. It seemed funny to me to have someone like Jon Spencer sitting down reading to a bunch of kids, but to do it in a way that made more fun of Jon Spencer than it did the kids. Then it all came together when we cast Bill Boggs with the idea to make it as straight as possible. The guiding creative principle was to make it not winking or campy, but to do it like a real show. Bill knew Matador was a hip thing, and while we didn’t want to fuck with him or make him the butt of the joke, we also didn’t want to correct him in those moments when he wasn’t entirely clear on how sarcastic this would be, that we were making fun of indie music as much as we were making fun of kids’ shows.
I also got an illuminating earful from Matador label honcho Gerard Cosloy…
GERARD COSLOY: We wanted to do a Matador compilation similar to things like the Warner Brothers Loss Leader comps, Blasting Concept, Wailing Ultimate, as a cheap introduction to the wonderful world of Matador, and we needed a concept. We had the idea to do an accompanying video just cobbling together a bunch of videos from the period, but that wasn’t very ambitious, so we wanted to have a narrative to it. We kept thinking about infomercials and instructional films, and we also thought about very awkward situations, like how this could be for children, like a child’s primer on the world of Matador, or record manufacturing and whatnot, just to add to the incongruity of the whole thing. Clay understood the idea right away. Some of the vague inspirations included the WOR TV show Wonderama, Uncle Floyd, Major Mudd, these sorts of kids shows with very poor production values, that are a little too earnest and a little wrong.
We were initially thinking of going for the laugh factor instead of playing it deadpan, and one of us—meaning me—had my heart set on Richard Bey, who was a shit-TV fixture on the East Coast from that era, who had a very exploitative, silly show. I thought he’d be perfect because he was so smarmy and creepy and weird, the least hip human being in the entire world. Having him in front of a room full of kids talking about music would be wrong in every conceivable way. His casting agency wanted some astronomical amount of money for him, they wanted something like $15,000. I think we budgeted something closer to $3,000. The agency suggested Bill Boggs, which was kind of incredible, because in a lot of ways he was a much bigger coup with a way more respected resume. He’s hosted daytime TV, he had a late night show in New York, I think he was the original executive producer of The Morton Downey Jr. Show. His credentials a both a totally generic host and as a guy who’d worked on really wacky TV was impeccable. He was just perfect for the job, because he was so deadpan that it made for much better comedy. Bill gave it a measure of gravitas—and it doesn’t make any sense, because there’s no way you could watch this and think it was real!
In conjunction with the launch of a new “This Day In Matador History” web site that seeks to engage music fans with the label’s now 27-ish years of output, the What’s Up Matador video is being released online for the first time ever today. Until now, it’s been a VHS collectable, and it was bundled as an add-on to the later Everything Is Nice DVD. As it happens, the mechanics of the cassette format led to a fucking hilarious manufacturing error in the video’s initial run.
Here’s that story in Gerard’s words, it’s pretty amazing:
GERARD COSLOY:The video duplication company that was in charge of manufacturing and packaging the VHS tapes was also handling the Michael Flatley Lord of the Dance videos, which were very very popular, he sold hundreds of thousands of those—God knows to who. There was a manufacturing error, and I don’t know exactly how many, but a good portion of the early shipments of What’s Up, Matador, people got their videocassettes, put them in their VCRs, and instead of seeing Bill Boggs, Ira Kaplan and Liz Phair, they were seeing Michael Flatley dance routines! We had a number of kinda angry consumers, and I hope that we got them all the right videotapes once the dust eventually cleared, but it was a long time ago. There was some ill will over that which probably cost us some word-of-mouth. I think we tried to explain to people that the Flatley tape was like $60 and they only paid $15. Our customer service back then wasn’t very sophisticated.
Anyone following indie rock in the last decade is surely familiar with Florida’s Surfer Blood, if not for their music, then for the dramatic roller-coaster of their career. They came out of the starting gate in 2010 with Astro Coast, a debut so widely acclaimed it landed the college kids in the band a world tour, and a run of opening slots for The Pixies. I saw one of their pre-fame shows, and while the music wasn’t 100% my zone, I totally understand the appeal. Despite the club being dead empty, they put on a show so affable and fun it felt like they could have been playing to a packed house party full of their best friends.
They were riding so high from that impressive beginning that on their tour for their second album, Pythons, they topped the bill over the venerable and respected indie stalwarts …And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead. But their second album was derailed, both by being less impressive than Astro Coast, and by a nasty and well-publicized domestic battery incident in which their their singer, John Paul Pitts, was the aggressor. After Pitts sought anger-management therapy, the band sought redemption with 2015’s respectable 1000 Palms, but they’ve been derailed again:
Thomas Fekete, Surfer Blood guitarist for 6 years, has been sidelined while undergoing treatment for a very rare and aggressive cancer (a sarcoma). Although Thom has health insurance, which has covered more than six months of chemotherapy, his experienced team of doctors are confident in an alternative treatment plan, that unfortunately is not covered by insurance. As he’s no longer able to tour and make a living, we hope and appreciate if you can help with a donation of any size, and help spread the word by sharing on social media. Thank you so much for the love and support!
A GoFundMe campaign to help Fekete came and went last spring, but there’s still a need for more money (fighting cancer is one of the most damnably expensive goddamn things on this Earth), so the band has contrived a novel fundraising idea. Bands including Guided By Voices, Yo La Tengo, Lou Barlow, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart, and unsurprisingly, Surfer Blood, have donated unreleased tracks, and each track has been lathe-cut by hand into a single record, each one-of-a-kind and accordingly numbered 1/1. All one of these unique, hand-made records are on eBay right now, through the Sweet Relief Musicians Fund. For a lower premium, the band offers a download of all the donated tracks in MP3 format. The minimum donation for that compilation is $10.
It may be impossible, I suspect, to fully catalog every song that Yo La Tengo has covered. Between their legendary request sets during WFMU’s frequent telethons (call in and pledge a donation and they’d play, live on air and on-the-spot, whatever song you asked for) and their 12-year run of guest- and covers-heavy Hanukkah shows at the late lamented Hoboken venue Maxwell’s (so it’s clear: the Hanukkah shows were for all eight nights of the holiday), the number of covers they’ve done in their thirty-some-odd years of existence surely must run over a thousand.
And yet, the band has begun a Spotify playlist to collect, in once place, the songs they’ve covered. These are mostly the originals, not YLT’s versions, with the exception of their new version of the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” (we told you about that one not so long ago), so they’re limited by what’s even on Spotify to begin with, and they’ve got a long way to go. The list currently stands at only 56 songs. To illustrate how ridiculously short that falls of the band’s actual covers repertoire, the 2006 album Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics alone sports thirty covers, plus a medley of 8 more. Eleven of the sixteen songs on their classic album Fakebook are covers. And well over half of the forthcoming Stuff Like That There…. you get the point, right? So I’m assuming the playlist is a work in progress. By all means give it a listen and have fun cruising the series of tubes for YLT’s versions. It’s a worthwhile timesuck if you like rock music—you like rock music, right? Meantime, I’m going to a share few YLT covers that I consider essential but are absent from the list.
Yo La Tengo have just released a video for their cover of the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” The song will appear on the album Stuff Like That There, due out late in August. It’ll feature plenty of covers besides “Friday,” including tunes by the Parliaments, Hank Williams, and the Lovin’ Spoonful.
Their version crushes the 1992 original, which has long been fanbase-breaker in the Cure’s oeuvre—mawkish, histrionic, popular as hell, but considered sub-par by just as many as those who adore it. It’s a love-it-or-hate-it song, and I’m pretty squarely in the hate-it camp. But Yo La Tengo’s version strips away all the Cure’s standard affectations, and the sincere, unpretentious rendition by YLT’s drummer Georgia Hubley reveals the lovely little song it could have been if the Cure hadn’t Cured it up quite so much. For revelatory covers of overblown pop songs, this ranks with Richard Thompson’s “Oops, I Did it Again.”
And the video is just wonderful. It features Hubely walking through the streets of Hoboken singing the song, apparently completely unaware that her singing is attracting giant exploding hearts to rain on the Earth. And as things get worse, the band’s sense of humor comes more and more to the fore.
Fans of avant-rock percussion should already know the name of Kid Millions. It’s the nom de rock of John Colpitts, best known as the drummer for the long-running, krautrock-influenced NYC band Oneida, who became notorious in 2002 for the 14-minute, one-note song “Sheets of Easter” from their essential 2xCD Each One Teach One. Millions’ uncannily metronomic timing, enviable stamina, and the fact that he’s one of the nicest guys on Earth has made him a sought-after percussionist, and he’s served stints with Ex-Models, Spiritualized, and the terrific Marnie Stern. He’s currently on tour with his recurring heavy-friends project Man Forever, whose new LP is Ryonen, a collaboration with Sō Percussion. From MF’s FB:
Man Forever is actually a band. It’s not a statement about men. It’s a compositional vehicle that tends to have a lot of drums but sometimes it doesn’t.
I’ve seen Man Forever three times, and I’ve yet to see them sans a lot of drums. The first show I caught had pounding from the likes of Obnox honcho Bim Thomas and Call of the Wild’s scary-good Allison Busch. The second time, Millions recruited local musicians at every tour stop to perform a drums-and-drone composition. But last Saturday, Man Forever were in Cleveland, and members of Yo La Tengo were also in town, doing a DJ set for Record Store Day. And so it came to pass that that night, YLT’s Georgia Hubley became a part of Man Forever with Millions, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Brian Chase, and Amy Garapic of the percussion ensemble Tigue. Shame there was apparently only a hi-hat available for Hubley to play, but then Garapic made just a snare go a pretty darn long way.
It merits mentioning that Millions had played with Hubley before—he was one of the supporting drummers in Yo La Tengo’s Late Night with Jimmy Fallon appearance in 2013, along with with Portlandia’s Fred Armisen. The clip, sadly, has been nuked from NBC’s website and Hulu, but if you’re really jonesing to see it, there’s a vid posted by someone who shot it off his TV screen here.
Here’s the video of Kid Millions’ ability to make drum circles cool again. I only got a few minutes of the set before my phone’s memory filled up, because I suck at phones. Additional footage comes courtesy of Jon Morgan and Lou Muenz.
Yo La Tengo has teamed up with renowned comix practitioner Jim Woodring, author of The Frank Book and other light classics, to present a swell collection of cute soft-vinyl dolls for those who pre-order their new DVD Tree, available in “late November 2013.”
The three dolls represent the three members of Yo La Tengo: “The ecstatic creatures that inhabit ‘The Tree’ are the 3 beings blessed by the god of music.”
This product is a set of DVD and 3 soft-vinyl dolls. The DVD contains an original animation (5:20 minutes) of a mind-blowing colorful dream world that centers on “the Tree” and the 3 whimsical characters. It is made by a Japanese production company that specialize in hand-drawn animation: drop. And of course, All NEW music by Yo La Tengo! The 3 colorful soft-vinyl dolls were sculpted by Japanese master sculptor: Tomohiro Yasui. Beautiful packaging design by Jim Woodring with a bonus comic on the back.
The DVD and the dolls together cost $40. The set will also be available in limited quantities on their coming European tour.
Here’s a video snippet presenting the three characters, although it is inexplicably without audio.