The key to understanding veteran indie-rock trio Yo La Tengo lies in the size of its members' record collections. They collect everything. "You could probably fit it all in a small-to-medium-size record store," bassist James McNew says. "With proper shelving and wall displays, of course."
Of course. Not only does the Hoboken band draw from perhaps seventy years of American music from jazz to rock to modern indie, but it takes the time to listen to it all, and then record its own stuff at a tempo befitting a slow Monday afternoon at a record store.
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, which came out last month on Matador, bucks the modern music industry timetable completely. Instead of working from home on the cheap and mastering quickly at the label's studio, Yo La Tengo spent a month in a Nashville studio earlier this year. Engineer and producer Roger Moutenot owns the studio, and has worked with the band for fourteen years of its twenty-year existence.
"It's a total luxury, I know," McNew says. "We'll arrive at the studio with more ideas, and it leaves the recording process maybe a little more spontaneous. A lot of times you're hearing us figuring something out or solving a problem as it happens."
Indeed, ... Beat Your Ass opens and closes with extended guitar jams that trade concision for improvisational noodling that actually pays off. In the middle, a U-Haul truck's worth of instruments fabricate Caribbean beats, brooding piano interludes, and a dozen other genres that don't include house and hip-hop. McNew is supposed to play bass, but each member of this band can pick up just about any instrument.
If the sound of ... Beat Your Ass veers hard into '60s and '70s pop-rock, McNew won't verify it by giving details about which vintage instruments went into the recording. "All weapons are secret weapons," he says. Then he hints, "There are things that are pretty old which are a part of our show, like this '60s organ made by Ace Tone. Those are very hard to come by, and I feel as though we have changed the market somewhat for them. We're not just collectors. We use them."
And that might be a good way to sum up Yo La Tengo's latest. It has the depth of a record collection that's getting some serious use.
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