Happy Hunting: On the Easter Eggs within Yo La Tengo’s Discography

Eli Zeger takes a look at Yo La Tengo's self-referential stylings.
By    April 17, 2018

Eli Zeger was at Sly’s MSG wedding.

Yo La Tengo have remained excellent throughout three tenacious decades, a streak that certainly includes their most recent effort, There’s A Riot Going On. Retrospective assessments of their discography have pointed out the numerous guises of the band: Yo La Tengo the shoegaze/noise outfit, Yo La Tengo the cover band with a prodigious repertoire, Yo La Tengo the masters of crafting bonafide pop songs that will stand the test of time.

Motley cultural allusions suffuse their discography, like how their 2018 album lifts its title from Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 classic, with Goin’ switched to Going. But recent press and coverage of the band from years prior have missed emphasizing a key ability belonging to Georgia, Ira, and James: to cunningly reference, aside from outside culture, themselves. There’s A Riot Going On differs from other albums because it’s comprised of past melodies, lyrics, and other material they never got around to actually developing into songs, though they held onto it all for posterity. While this was a drastic alteration to their creative process, it’s representative of the band’s encompassing awareness of their discography, and how their past intrinsically links to their present, even their future.

Their Little Thrift Store Corner

One of the first of these self-references was also cultural, appearing on a track from 1995’s Electr-O-Pura. During “The Hour Grows Late,” Ira Kaplan declares that he wants to “send this out to Richie Van/ In his thrift-store corner of the world.” The band found a vinyl copy of Van’s My Little Corner Of The World in a Tampa thrift store one day while touring; the album’s cheesy, bizarre lounge music captivated them and it “became a talisman for the band,” as Jesse Jarnow writes in his Yo La Tengo bio Big Day Coming. Following the shout-out on “The Hour Grows Late,” they decided to cover the title track, a popular ’60s standard originally written by Bob Hilliard and Lee Pockriss, on 1998’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. While Yo La Tengo’s version inspired Gilmore Girls’ 2002 soundtrack title, Van’s is obscure beyond obscure. So far the album stream on YouTube has accumulated a whopping 30 views over the past six months.

This obsession with such specific kitsch is hilarious, but there is a deeper level of profundity. With the countless renditions of “My Little Corner Of The World,” with Van’s being totally lost in the mire, it’s hard to feel the depth of this song’s romantic connotations, so Yo La Tengo resurrected it in order to explore less obvious tropes.

Thanks to Georgia Hubley’s croon, it becomes a love song to the self, about finding solace and comfort in a closed-off space and feeling safe from an overwhelming world. Where “The Hour Grows Late” tells of a performer onstage facing an empty room (imagery that’s bolstered by Kaplan name-dropping such an unknown guy), “My Little Corner” is about turning away from it all. Either scenario is characteristic of Yo La Tengo, in which they put to lyrics the bittersweetness of quietude.

When Nothing Became Something

For self-references related to instrumentation and melodicism, their 2000 album And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out functions as a nexus. “Cherry Chapstick” evokes their biggest hit “Sugarcube,” from I Can Hear The Heart, with the same strumming pattern of the intro riff and Kaplan breaking into a similarly possessed, incongruous guitar solo. But the song is more drawn out and sounds like it could fall to pieces at any second; Hubley’s initial drumroll is rushed and Kaplan powers through on riffs before coming to sudden halts.

Thematically reflected by Gregory Crewdson’s eerily somnolent album artwork showing a beam of light from an unknown source casting down onto a suburban street at night, And Then Nothing is about the overlap of the conscious and unconscious. “Cherry Chapstick” is an uncanny manipulation, integrating the familiarity of “Sugarcube” into vaguely unfamiliar territory.

The next self-reference, two tracks later on “Madeline,” is much subtler and easier to miss. While the name of someone is given, Madeline is seemingly nonexistent. Hubley sings how this person has “always kept me waiting/ Somehow I never seem to mind,” signing off each chorus with, “Come back and see me, Madeline.”

During the verses, high-end guitar plays between the notes B and A, letting the last one sustain for a moment—a copy of this very brief motif can be heard during the verses of “Today Is The Day,” a few years later on 2003’s Summer Sun. Back on vocals, Hubley sings to someone evidently not present: “Today is the day / I think of you.” She even mentions seeing her sister “accepting blame,” recalling a mention of possible kinship back on “Madeline”: “When you were asked if we were sisters/ You replied you weren’t sure.”

Both “Madeline” and “Today Is The Day,” connected by their guitar motif and the overarching key of D major, specifically express longing over a nebulous conception of the past, while the present moment, akin to Kaplan’s room as the hour grows late, feels empty. Hubley never begs for either person to whom she’s singing to be part of her life again, though; these songs aren’t about an intense yearning for reunion. Instead the resultant emptiness of both, awash with all its melancholy, is an element of ontological poignance which seems to be the band’s central emotional focus. This is represented by the album title, of nothing turning into something, as well as how they reference in one song the two-note guitar melody of the other.

What Exactly Is Yo La Tengo?

A running inside joke among the three members involves the phrase “hot chicken,” which recurs on some tracklists from the ’90s; it has two appearances on Electr-O-Pura and one on I Can Hear The Heart. While this is the most well known example that’s specifically textual, Yo La Tengo have made other self-references of the same kind in recent music videos.

From 2013’s Fade, “I’ll Be Around” feigns as a conventional lyric video with lines superimposed over quaint bucolic visuals, when really this is a playful endeavor in semiological, self-referential mix-and-match. Oblivious to what Kaplan is actually singing, lyrics to songs from years past like “Sugarcube,” “Autumn Sweater,” and “Something To Do,” among countless others, display whenever Kaplan opens his mouth (except for the line “I’m looking for you,” which shows up when he does sing it).

More and more lyrics start to appear on screen in entire chunks of stanza, colliding with interspersed steps to a recipe for spicy tortilla soup that the band are presumably seen cooking and eating together in the second half of the video, before the police come to arrest bandmate James McNew. Hubley and Kaplan, kind of confused, stare out the window after him as he’s being led to the cop car. Then they go back to their meal.

“I’ll Be Around” is a freeform, themeless retrospective of sorts, and if a driving question can be discerned, it appears in the video to another track off of Fade. “Ohm” begins with a hand writing on a whiteboard: “What is Yo La Tengo?” It’s lofty and abstract, but it’s also a reminder of how they don’t like to read that deep into their music—ask any of the members this question and their answer will probably just be it’s the name of their band. Although a prolific, multi-directional discography looms over their livelihoods, as literally seen in the “I’ll Be Around” video, at the same time they’re three friends who want to have a nice dinner together once in a while.

A Riot Of Their Own

After three decades, it’s understandable that Yo La Tengo are, in their distinctly casual manner, now making homage to their career as a whole. This is why some cryptic lines from There’s A Riot Going On closer “Here You Are” could read as disheartening: “We are out of words / We’re out of time,” and then, “We had our run / We’re gone.” Maybe they’re morphing into a purely instrumental band? Or they were just signing off the album, and nothing more. Whatever the underlying intent might be, whether or not this is self-reference, it’s not as if they’re calling it quits. In fact Kaplan told Newsweek they’d “definitely” be around for another 30 years. That’s big; no pressure though.

Other possible self-references on the new album are just as speculative. Where they worried “For Shame Of Doing Wrong” (a Richard & Linda Thompson cover featured on the trio’s recent reissue of 1993’s Painful), now they’re saying “Let’s Do It Wrong.” And where And Then Nothing has been recognized as their most ambient sounding album to date, now they’ve got full-fledged ambient tracks like “Dream Dream Away” and “Shortwave” (perhaps a nod to William Basinski’s Shortwave Music).

But to read a little into “Here You Are,” the title (much more assertive-sounding than Summer Sun’s closer “Take Care”) is like a proclaimed offer, as in ‘here’s this album that you’re almost done with in case you were wondering what’s been playing for the past hour.’ It can also read as a signpost. For now, this is technically the latest Yo La Tengo song, the furthest out along the periphery; and it makes explicit the destination you’ve reached as a listener.

As the track’s title suggests, not to mention album opener “You Are Here,” the band is perfect for mapping and/or flowcharting—you can’t begin to do either without including their self-referentiality in the legend. It’s part of what has kept them intact for so long, helping to solidify their history and egalitarian perspective: All their music—no matter how old or obscure it is or, in the case of their latest album, not yet fully developed—is equally worth retaining and playing. Self-referentiality serves as a throughline, stressing the intrinsic linkages between Yo La Tengo’s albums. This is the story, and how they’ve told it.

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