Meditations on Music: Yo La Tengo

Live at Thalia Hall, March 30


This show further solidified Yo La Tengo as a sensitive band that makes late night music, but of course they don’t let that limit them. Their late night music is the stuff you can brood to, the stuff you can experience beauty to, the stuff you can dance to, the stuff you can go crazy to and the stuff that evokes catharsis of all kinds. Throughout their career, the band has covered a wide emotional and sonic range with their songs; pretty much every set list encompasses that, dipping into various points in their discography, as well as their huge repertoire of covers. The second night at Chicago’s Thalia Hall was no exception, and despite playing about half of their new album released a few weeks before, the other songs were not tacked-on hits in the way that most well-known bands touring a new album program their shows. They were, instead, deeply connected to each other, though some songs were separated by 25 years. With an artistry that went beyond playing individual songs beautifully, Yo La Tengo created two distinct sets — the first being mellower and the second swooping back and forth from their ambient, droning soundscapes to their more feedback-driven, krautrock jams, as well as the cracks in between — with each of its contents complementing each other as parts, as a whole set and as a complete show.

A lot of the cohesion was derived from the conscious decision to splash around in the liminal pools at the end of one song and the beginning of the next. The transitions were not always direct segues per se, but throughout the concert, the trio let songs soften and evaporate, their energy converting into something else. Even when there was silence from the band and applause between songs, the energy was there. The band played with that, usually falling into a recognizable element of a tune after the amorphous transition.

Yo La Tengo closed out the second set just like they did 1993’s “Painful” — with the succinct instrumental “I Heard You Looking.” While seven minutes long on the album, the song is simple, and concludes the record that would inform the trajectory they are still following. Live, it performed a similar role. But clocking in at twice the length (or more, time slipped away), the song grew to mean even more to me. I was protected and watched over — emotions I had yet to experience with music prior to this — and these feelings instilled other feelings — those of motivation, inspiration, peace and certainty of my future — in ways of being certain what I would do and certain that there would be mystery as well. The words here came later, the emotions I felt originally took form as sound.

Yo La Tengo creates countless interpretations of beauty via their records. If you lack the opportunity to see them live, I cannot recommend any of their albums enough, but hearing their career patch-worked with resilient threads of improvisation and dignified playfulness that put everything into perspective is something that can only be experienced live.


“There’s A Riot Going On”


Until you are able to hear them in concert, the records speak volumes on their own and together. This most recent album is their fifteenth, and with it I can continue to say that every album they put out has brought me something new, whether it is some lyric I cannot stop mulling over, a certain puzzle piece of a melody that should not fit in but does, a self-aware but nearly unfathomable emotion or something else entirely.

I would not recommend this record to start off the plunge into their catalogue, but it certainly can be taken in early during the process, especially because of its strong ties to the world around it. A lot of its content — musical and lyrical — is a response to the tumultuous and titular riot(s), and they approach the topic as the weathered and eloquent creators they are. Whether it is Ira Kaplan’s barely audible voice and guitar barely peeking, Georgia Hubley’s drums and synths that coat the hour with a sweet darkness, James McNew’s tender upright bass textures, or simply the way the three come together seamlessly, “There’s A Riot Going On” serves as a measured, but frank, dialogue with everything happening from their side while also being an expansive, standalone work. Like their past releases, understanding and connection require a conversation between the art and the listener for an enhanced and immersive experience, but even at the surface, their music does wonders, challenging forms and palettes. Their latest record does this especially well throughout. Submerged in its context or not, “There’s A Riot Going On” is yet another well-crafted statement that will move its audience in studio and live forms now and many years from now.