Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Rebirth of Cool

I'm exhausted tonight. Not really because today was my first day back at work from vacation. Rather it's because I've been listening for two straight days to the new Yo La Tengo album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.

There has been a ton of hype revolving around this album. Not really because it's simply a new album from one of the most prolific indie bands of the last 20+ years. More so because this new album is a throw-back to the best era of one of the most prolific indie bands of the last 20+ years. That Painful/Electr-O-Pura/I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One era.

I first got into Yo La Tengo in 1997. I had just seen the video to "Sugarcube" on 120 Minutes and was blown away. Just a week or so later, a friend at work asked if I wanted to go with him to see Yo La Tengo at the Blue Note in Columbia, Mo. "Uh, yeah." I had a week to buy up their latest album (I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One), listen the hell out of it, and obsess with it.

At that point, I didn't really know what the band looked like. Right before the show started, these three dweeby-looking people came out on stage to get everything set big guy with glasses, this little scrawny guy with curly hair, and a blond chick. Whatever. When they finished, they left the stage, all the lights went out, then there was a big dramatic entrance.....of those same three people.

The show itself just blew me away. I still remember Ira screaming "False Alarm" and the what seemed like 45 minute version of "Blue Line Swinger" and me screeching like a girl when they played "Sugarcube." The most memorable thing to me Ira's guitar solo on "We're an American Band." He was throwing his guitar in the air above his head and making the most beautiful noise I've ever heard come out of that instrument. That performance alone still makes "We're an American Band" my favorite Yo La Tengo song.

This band seemed just so cool, so untouchable to me. It took a while for anybody to say something and it really flattened me when the first thing anybody said to the speechless crowd was Ira asking, "So you guys have a lot of Schnucks out here, right?" Turns out the band was very obtainable. After the show, Georgia came down to talk to me for about 30 minutes. Outside, James was chatting up a bunch of folks.

That night, I became absolutely obsessed with Yo La Tengo. I quickly snagged up all their albums (except Ride the Tiger....don't know why, but I haven't ever picked that one up) and memorized every little note of feedback. For the next three years, hardly a day went by where I didn't listen to Yo La Tengo....seriously, I was obsessed. I was convinced that there wasn't a better band on Earth. I even wrote an essay on the band in high school. I even covered their version of Jackson Browne's "Somebody's Baby" in a coffee shop in college. Then in 2000 when I was living in Milwaukee, the day finally came for a new Yo La Tengo album.....And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.

....and I just didn't get it. I wrestled with that album for a year or so, and I just didn't get it. It had some great moments, especially "You Can Have it All." However, I just couldn't get it. Three years later, they followed up with Summer Sun....and I didn't really care anymore. I bought it on its release date, but it didn't really interest me at all. Even know, I'm looking at the tracklist and can't think think of how any song goes.

With the anticipation of the release of this week's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, I kept reading about how it's the return of the Yo La Tengo sound. I was skeptical, but the great reviews kept pouring in. Okay if I'm going to be forced to be excited, I guess I will be.

And guess what....

....everybody was right.

This album is so freaking great. I was stunned as I listened to the 10+ minute opening "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" and I barely even noticed how great the next three songs were. As soon as "The Room Got Heavy" ended, I got up to jump around and pump my fist. I couldn't help but drum and bop along with "Watch Out for Me Ronnie." Yo La Tengo was freaking back on top of what they do best. During its 75+ minutes, this album is full of those noise-rock, psychodelic, shoegazing jams that made me love Yo La Tengo to begin with. Everything just fits perfectly and everything just makes sense.

Yo La Tengo, as nerdy as they appear on the outside, understand what is cool more than I ever will. Yo La Tengo is the only band that can use a near-nine minute piano-laden instrumental as an intermission and not make it pretentious ("Daphnia"). Listen to "I Should Have Known Better," blast it out of your car stereo at full-blast, and you will be the coolest kid on your block. No other band can portray the kings of cool, the Velvet Underground, and make it make sense (I Shot Andy Warhol). The nerds of cool are back on top. Even if this won't be the most important album of the year to most, it is to me.