Yo La Tengo is a trio, not a duo. This mundane factoid seems important to mention, given the early response to the Hoboken, N.J., band's ninth studio album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador). It's a remarkably meditative record for a group that formed in the mid-'80s as a feedback-driven indie-rock act and continued with that sound through most of the '90s. Inside-Out, though, suggests intimacy, with its slow, loping songs and whispery, romantic vocals, and the album's been held up as a mirror of the marriage of guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley.
Still, there's a bassist in the band, too -- James McNew -- and Kaplan wants to emphasize his place. "He doesn't sing as many lead vocals and doesn't write as many lyrics and doesn't do as many guitar solos," says Kaplan. "But other than that, he's just as involved as any of us in the writing of the songs, in the arranging of the songs, the playing on the record. Because of the marriage, it's easy to overlook his contributions. It's not our favorite part of reading things that are written about us. It's just inaccurate."
But it's understandable. Kaplan's and Hubley's conversational vocals carry much of the songs' weight on Inside-Out. And what comes out of their mouths is revealing, almost unsettlingly so -- no major crises are presented, but it's like overhearing a couple talking privately in a restaurant: You can't help but listen, even though you know you shouldn't.
This is a strange turn of events. When the band formed in 1984 with a revolving membership (McNew joined in 1992), lyrics weren't its selling point. Coming out of a scene that had produced the jittery jangle-pop of the Feelies, Yo La Tengo developed as an attempt to merge some of that band's folksier tendencies with the Velvet Underground's feedback drones and frenzies. Yo La Tengo was part of the East Coast rock scene but never fell into the sophisticated downtown milieu of, say, Sonic Youth.
Though Kaplan protests, "I don't really know or care" what role the band played in the '90s independent-rock scene, there's little question that the group was one of its leading lights. Some even quibbled when the band's label, Matador, struck a distribution deal with Atlantic Records. Yo La Tengo's one release during that period -- 1993's Painful -- is still the band's best record, the moment at which the group galvanized all its disparate ideas about melody and guitar noise.
The band varied the theme slightly for the '95 follow-up, Electr-O-Pura; 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One marked the group's initial move into more introspective territory, though that record often seems slight and formless. Likewise, Inside-Out at first sounds clinical, slow and chilly. But at heart, it's a pop record; there are hooks for those with the patience to hear the intimacy they underscore. That word -- intimacy -- is something Kaplan takes to. "We are probably less consciously afraid of that," he says. "I think in years past there would have been a greater reluctance to open ourselves up as much as we are willing to open ourselves up now."
Opening Yo La Tengo's St. Louis show is the noisy mantra-rock band Quickspace, whose foundation is built on early- and mid-'90s British band the Faith Healers. Their new record, The Death of Quickspace, was just released by Matador in America.