Fade in: Yo La Tengo’s James McNew reflects on his Charlottesville past

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Indie rock royalty, Yo La Tengo (James McNew, far right) lets loose in a thoughtful way with two contrasting sets at the Jefferson. Image: Carlie Armstrong. Indie rock royalty, Yo La Tengo (James McNew, far right) lets loose in a thoughtful way with two contrasting sets at the Jefferson. Image: Carlie Armstrong.

“Trying not to think about things is a real important part of the day, for us,” said James McNew. McNew has been the bassist for perennial indie rock favorite Yo La Tengo since 1992, when he joined Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, solidifying an ever-shifting line-up (he was the bands’ 17th bass player) since the group formed in the mid-’80s. The trio released a series of legendary and beloved albums on the Matador label in the ’90s, and has spent the decade-plus since refining its technique and confirming its status as one of the best, most consistent and inventive bands in rock ‘n’ roll. Some bands never recapture the initial glory of a debut album, but Yo La Tengo is the rare band that only seems to improve with age, and rounding out a third decade, has just released its 13th album, Fade.

Like John Peel’s famous quote about The Fall (“They are always different; they are always the same”), Yo La Tengo has made a career out of taking unexpected turns and incorporating a wide range of influences, effortlessly tackling rowdy guitar-noise anthems, tender understated ballads, and seemingly everything in between, from funk to bossa nova to sprawling ambient drones, often in the space of a single record. Its greatest strength is the ability to infuse those diverse styles with overall pleasantness, and an unprecedented level of quality control.

McNew said the band’s formula for longevity is “just trying to focus, and relax into what we do, and look forward, or at least outward. We certainly don’t reevaluate ourselves every time it’s time to make a record. We don’t look back and say, ‘Hey, let’s do something more like that record, that record did O.K.,’ that’s just false, to us. I don’t know if we could stand to look ourselves in the face, if that was our approach.”

In general, Yo La Tengo is a mature band, emphasizing understated thoughtfulness even when the lyrics confront uncertainty or self-doubt. But the pleasures of the music remain fundamentally adolescent ones —the visceral thrill of a fuzzy guitar riff, and the sugar rush of a perfect pop hook. The surprise this time around is that Fade is, perhaps, its most homogenous album. A short, sweet set of garage-flavored pop rock, informed by the confidence that comes from decades of trying everything (and succeeding). If the typical Yo La Tengo record thrives on contrast, here it dodges expectations by integrating sounds fully into every track, mixing bright harmonies, lovely guitar textures, and efficient, infectious grooves. As usual, eschewing grand statements in favor of slow, building moments, but the album is concise, and its appeal is immediate.

This subtle shift is due in part to behind-the-scenes changes; after two decades with producer Roger Moutenot, the band decided to try out legendary Chicago-based producer John McIntire, known for his work with Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, as well as dozens of others. “We’ve been friends for a really long time,” McNew said. “We got to know John in the summer of 1992, when Yo La Tengo and the band Seam did a tour. John was the drummer in Seam, and we got to know each other very well, crammed in a tiny European aluminum van for five weeks. It’s kind of like someone you were in the war with, even if you’re not socially close in day-to-day life.”

The trio is now preparing to launch a U.S. tour, which will make a stop at the Jefferson, and McNew is no stranger to Charlottesville. Having spent the bulk of his teenage years here, he’s been reserved in his praise for the town since. Few creative types have fond memories of their adolescent years, and some of those experiences can apparently still sting years later, judging by McNew’s interviews in 2010’s The Parking Lot Movie.

But he was immediately enthusiastic as soon as I mentioned Charlottesville’s music scene in the ’80s: “A really good friend of mine booked shows there for a really long time, and as far as I know, he was the first guy to bring punk bands and other types of music to Charlottesville. Because of this one guy [Maynard Sipe], I got to see all of these bands that changed my life forever. Pretty regularly—once a month over the span of a year or two—I saw like 20 unbelievable shows that formed my ideas about music, and how it could be done. It was like a gift, I couldn’t believe they were coming to our town.

Asked for a favorite musical memory of Charlottesville, McNew concedes, “it’s hard to pick just one,” though he does cite a late-career appearance by Black Flag, as well as shows by regional punk bands like Government Issue and Honor Roll. His greatest local affiliation may be for the Happy Flowers, a short-lived experimental punk duo of John Beers and Charlie Kramer, which grew from the ashes of Charlottesville’s first hardcore band, The Landlords.

“The Happy Flowers were a huge influence,” McNew said. “The fact that these guys were on this great record label, Homestead Records—Homestead, and SST from California, and Touch & Go from Chicago—those were very strong, very early indie labels. And these guys from Charlottesville were a part of that. That was so exciting to be a part of that, to have access to that world, if not entry to it. These guys were friends, but to me, they were superstars.”

McNew made his last musical appearance in Charlottesville in the fall of 2011, with his solo project Dump (Sipe’s new band, Girl Choir, was the opener). Despite releasing four albums and a handful of singles under that name, Dump has played live fewer than 20 times in 20 years. The September concert at the Tea Bazaar made for a rare treat. Though the majority of the Dump discography has been out of print for several years, McNew says there are plans to reissue several Dump albums in the spring, through the German electronic pop label Morr Music.

Yo La Tengo will perform at The Jefferson Theater on Thursday, January 24, performing a short quiet set, followed by a longer, heavier one. Tickets are $20-25 and the doors open at 7pm.

Yo La Tengo/The Jefferson Theater/January 24

 

 

 

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.beers.16 John Beers

    A few corrections:

    The Landlords were one of Charlottesville’s earliest hardcore bands, but not the first. Lackey Die came before them, even though none of their recordings were released until 25 or so years later. I’ve also heard of a group called the Dead Belushis, who were earlier.

    Happy Flowers were together from late 1983 ’til mid 1990, so “short-lived” is not an entirely accurate description. In addition, Happy Flowers and The Landlords existed concurrently from 1983 until mid 1987.

    Maynard Sipe brought tons of great bands to Charlottesville, but the guys in Lackey Die were the first to bring out-of-town punk bands to C’ville. Karen Windham also promoted lots of punk shows in the early days, both at Muldowney’s Pub and at Trax.

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.beers.16 John Beers

    Great article, by the way! :)

  • todd

    nice write up James! -todd

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