At its Pageant show in 2003, Yo La Tengo interrupted its signature set of moody dreampop by singing along to a prerecorded instrumental mix of Summer Sun's "Nothing but You and Me." Ira Kaplan set down his candy-apple-red Fender Stratocaster and rocked the mic, while Georgia Hubley and James McNew backed him up with doo-wop harmonies and choreographed dance moves. It was funny and rife with the self-aware humor Yo La Tengo has staked its reputation on — funny, like naming a song "We're an American Band." Funny, like its (mostly) annual Hanukkah concert event, "Eight Days of Yo La Tengo" and funny like releasing an album titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.
Part of the joke of this karaoke performance was Kaplan, a man synonymous with hushed vocals and noisy guitar heroics who comes across as a white, short, Jewish version of Curtis Mayfield. Since Summer Sun, he has peeled away the layers of irony surrounding his love of R&B. "Our soul influences are a little more out of the closet than they used to be," he says. "It's not so much a reflection of new music we're listening to or an interest in playing differently. Over time, we've gotten less shy about keeping that in the practice room."
Yo La Tengo's twelfth album, 2009's Popular Songs, shows the band at its most extroverted. Kaplan is particularly confident; he no longer gasps for breath under mountains of fuzz. He weaves a syncopated melody around punchy organ shards on the shockingly funky "Periodically Double or Triple," professing the hook, "I don't have to make it rain, but it never hurts to," with the authority of Al Green commanding to be taken to the river.
One track later, Kaplan trades lines with wife and bandmate Hubley amidst "My Girl" strings and "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)" bass on the bouncy "If It's True." These are but a few moments of Popular Songs plucked from Motown's heyday in '60s Detroit — an impressive feat for an album recorded in the present tensez by a trio of fortysomethings in a Hoboken, New Jersey, rehearsal space.
Kaplan recalls the motivations behind the album's setting. "With every record we make, we try to find the optimum experience," he says. "There are always multiple agendas, and while making records is different than playing live, you'd like to play with the ease that you feel every other day." He adds: "You have to try to remember you're making a record and forget you're making a record simultaneously, and we thought recording in our practice room would help us forget a little bit."
This statement barely scratches the surface of the nonchalance with which Yo La Tengo operates. Kaplan, on the band's songwriting process: "We try to make something that sounds good to us." His explanation of Yo La Tengo's albums: "When we have a bunch of songs, we record them." Setlists? "We don't know what song we're going to play on a given night until we're out there doing them." In other words, "we don't specialize in any sort of overview," Kaplan says. "We try to do what's right in the moment."
This simplistic approach has fueled Yo La Tengo for a quarter of a century; Popular Songs comes on the heels of the band's 25th birthday. Beyond that, the band has even more cause for celebration. Its 2000 masterpiece, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, was recently included on several best-albums-of-the-decade lists, much like 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One was in the '90s.
Of course, Kaplan obsesses over the mainstream splashes the band has made as often as he obsesses over what its next record will sound like. In other words, never.
"Obviously, a lot of thought goes into our music — and to an extent, I'm probably lying to you when I say we don't premeditate these things," he says. "But at the same time, we really do try to make it up as we go along." The band's habit of playing it by ear has paid off, though: For starters, the name Yo La Tengo is often heard in the same breath as Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine, while its influence is felt in the music of Broken Social Scene, Wavves, Cymbals Eat Guitars and any other band who combines sweet melodies with subversive dissonance.
Kaplan shrugs off the stigma of notoriety, though, by offering a statement that — like Yo La Tengo itself — drips with equal elements of punk-rock apathy, tongue-in-cheek self-deprecation and admirable maturity. "We just sort of do what we're doing, and if people like it, that's great," he says. "If they don't, that's a little less great. But I don't know what we're supposed to do with that information."