The Insides Of Out

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Yo La Tengo

And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out


Sometimes pretty good is not enough. Case in point: Yo La Tengo's new record. It's a question of expectations. Yo La Tengo's name is derived from the cry of a Mets outfielder and their recent press materials have featured a ballpark motif, so I will use a baseball metaphor to further explain.

Yo La Tengo - drummer/singer Georgia Hubley, guitarist/organist/ singer Ira Kaplan, and bassist/singer James McNew - are the indie rock equivalent of a #1 starter. You count on them to stop your slumps, to give the team eight solid innings when the bullpen is exhausted, and to go out there and get you that all-important first-game playoff win. As any baseball fan worth his salt knows, a good #1 starter has a full reportoire of stuff they can surprise the hitter with. The Pedro Martinezes and Greg Madduxes can get left-handers and right-handers alike out. They have good breaking stuff and good straight stuff, and they know how to mix it up. They can force a groundball for an inning-ending double play or strike out a slugger with the bases loaded.

On Electr-O-Pura and especially I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, Yo La Tengo were #1 starters. As McNew emerged as the third contributor the band had been looking for since Dave Schramm left in 1986, Yo La Tengo moved into a new period in its career, a time of supreme confidence and seemingly endless possibilities. Bossa nova, dreampop, pedal steel country, sampledelic freak-rock, White Light/White Heat guitar clang, Anita Bryant covers - YLT was firing on all cylinders. Their curve was popping, and they were really helping the Matador ball team while the egotistical superstars (Pavement), flashy speed demons (Jon Spencer Blues Explosion), and Japanese imports (Guitar Wolf) performed erratically. With the loss of Silkworm and Liz Phair to free agency, Matador skipper Chris Lombardi needs Yo La to go out there and have a 20-win season now more than ever.

And damned if they haven't lost their fastball. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is a very pretty, very considered album of slow, organ-supported mood crawls. And nothing else. There are no rock songs, no folkie indulgences, no Burt Bacharach samples, and no Kevin Shields whammy-guitar workouts. It's not bad at all. Kaplan's "Our Way To Fall," a how-'bout-those-times-gone-by mumble that sounds ported straight from New Wave Hot Dogs, is touching; McNew and Kaplan's exchanged "ba da bas" on the Hubley-led "You Can Have It All" are catchy; and the bizarrely titled "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" would have been one of the better songs on Heart.

Problem is, none of these songs are tracks from Heart, or Pura, or Painful, they're songs from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, and the drum machine clinks and six-minute two-note basslines pile up here faster than a (pre-surgery) Kerry Wood heater. Closer "Night Falls On Hoboken," a 17-minute clunker of an epic, pales in comparison to even the last record's "Spec Bebop," which at least had some feedback to liven things up. The entire record is composed of "Big Day Coming" reworkings, with nary a "Sugarcube" or "Tom Courtenay" to liven things up.

Yo La Tengo seem to be aiming here for a focused, linear sort of single-statement album that they've never really attempted before (with the partial exception of the brilliantly hung up Painful). And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is an attempt at large-scale slow-burn spookiness that bands like Giant Sand and Lambchop do much, much better. Yo La lacks a dramatic figure to tie a collection of songs like this together; their strength has always been in their shiftines, their restlessness, and their clear fan's joy in trying on every hat they ever wanted to wear as young aficionados of rock music.

Hubley's wispy voice works terrifically against guitar wash (see "Blue Line Swinger," "From A Motel 8") and sporadically as an actual song focus ("Shadows"). She's given the bulk of the singing duties here, but seems to be more interested in working on her infuriatingly unvarying drum patterns. Ira Kaplan, a Lou Reed with all of the pretensions removed, gives the album its only hint of charisma on "Our Way To Fall" and then skulks off, leaving keys taped down on the band's Ace Tone new wave organ as he realphabetizes his record collection. McNew, who's revealed a gift for pop simplicity that neither of the band's founding members seems to possess with his side project Dump, seems along for the ride here, even though his "Stockholm Syndrome" was one of the most widely hailed highlights of the last record.

Yo La Tengo has always towed the line between cohesion and chaos. Their only real career failure, the album May I Sing With Me, showed them with clearly no idea where to go and sweating it. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out has no such problems. The band is as confident as its ever been, perhaps more so - it takes a lot of guts to release an album this one-sided after three previous albums teeming with diversity. Absorbed into the breadth of Yo La's massive discography, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out adds several excellent slow burns that are as good or better as anything that's come before. But listened to all at once, the true fan can't help but be a little wistful that they're only seeing one side of a great band. It's like when I was nine and the All-Star game was at Wrigley Field. My father could only get tickets to the day before warmups - the home run derby, batting practice, the old-timers game. It was a fun day - but it wasn't the show.

[Mark T.R. Donohue]


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