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Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are essentially folkies fascinated with noise—an apparent contradiction that leads to plenty more when translated into music: They’re sure-handed pop stylists whose music often falls apart in their hands. Their clamorous songs are frequently as pretty as their quiet ones. Kaplan tends to sing worriedly, with a frayed confidence, about diminishing spirits and lost days, whereas Hubley, who’s way more delicate sounding than her husband, is the anchor, the mature one, the one who always seems to be holding things together. Kaplan’s a guitar hero who sometimes seems barely able to play. And although I’ve never met anyone who’s confessed to fantasizing about her, Hubley’s a sex symbol all the same.
For these reasons and many more, it’s possible to love Kaplan and Hubley’s band, Yo La Tengo, with half your heart and be indifferent about it with what heart you have left. Yet because the two are a couple just as surely as Everest is a big-ass mountain, you can’t really choose to like one and not the other. The music they make about the bliss and troubles they share is a result of choices made together, choices that have produced a relatively diverse canon. Blame or praise the committee as you see fit.
On Friday, one of the choices made was, as my friend remarked midway through the band’s 20-plus-minute opener, to demand that the audience “buy in early or leave.” The song was “Night Falls on Hoboken,” a ruminative, glacially paced ballad that threatens to explode but never really does. The music was fragile, and even after it started, there were people in the 9:30 Club who literally didn’t realize that the band had taken the stage. Even when Kaplan started playing with his effects and shaking his acoustic as if it were a Strat during the song’s climax, I saw fit to glare at the people socializing behind me—a gesture that, translated from Midwestern, means, “Um, shut the fuck up.”
Yo La’s latest, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, is not its most atmospheric work (Painful is), or even its most personal (they’re all pretty personal, but Electr-O-Pura and I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One are more so); it’s just its least rocking. The music on the band’s records is generally a mix of songs that are headlong rockers and songs that aren’t. The sonic spaces below and above familiar-sounding riffs and sturdy rhythms are where Yo La creates as if from scratch, where Hubley ditches her sticks for brushes or her drums for keybs, where the music flows sideways but rarely up or down. On Inside-Out, the band operates almost exclusively from this place. The album’s title is slyly descriptive: The music’s all ethereal and slightly twisted.
The pensive Inside-Out is best appreciated sitting down—which explains the chairs on the main floor of the 9:30, one of two obvious concessions made in an effort to present the new music in the most complimentary way. (The album’s lone rocker, “Cherry Chapstick,” was kept off the set list.) The second concession was the lineup: In addition to Hubley, Kaplan, and James McNew—the bassist-and-then-some who, for the past nine years, has rounded out what’s usually a trio, the touring group now includes guitarist (and ex-Clean member) David Kilgour and Superchunk/Merge Records henchman Mac McCaughan.
The fact that Yo La’s gone deluxe with its roster is a touch surprising, given how spare Inside-Out sounds during a casual listen. But Kaplan and Hubley are perfectionists as much as sound-fetishists, and their supporting cast gets the music. If the band’s central couple represents many fans’ version of a marriage made in bohemian heaven, the band itself is the picture of an unconventional bohemian family. McNew’s been around long enough that he certainly knows things about Kaplan and Hubley that they don’t know about each other, and the bond manifested itself on stage. McNew never overplayed, and on “You Can Have It All,” a feather-light, bossa nova-ish shuffle from the new album, McNew and Kaplan forsook their instruments to dance in unison like awkward school kids imitating the Temptations.
McCaughan’s the resident noodler—shaking maracas one song, playing synth the next and xylophone after that. He’s not just eye candy, although seeing one of indie rock’s most legendary softies take up with indie rock’s most romantic combo did the heart good. “Our Way to Fall” is a gentle remembrance of what I’m guessing were the Kaplan-Hubley union’s early years, and without McCaughan’s synth washes, there wouldn’t have been enough song to fill the room.
Such minimalism requires undivided attention, and for the most part, the band got it, even if it didn’t come begging. Kaplan and Hubley remain an endearing fascination, not just for their music but because of the relationship that fuels it. Songs don’t come any prettier or sadder than “Tears Are in Your Eyes.” It’s more or less a gentle rhythm overlaid with Hubley’s soft coo, which just barely seemed to escape her tiny body. Kaplan helped her out with the chorus, and you could see him physically forcing the coarseness out of his voice. He didn’t want to step on Hubley’s toes, and he didn’t want to ruin the song, which is undoubtedly about him.
For a couple who engage in public intimacy as often as these two, it’s somewhat remarkable how seldom their names are mentioned in the same sentence as sex. They don’t exactly shrink from the subject—they’ve sung about role switching, and “Cherry Chapstick” features a girl wearing nothing but lip balm. But the fact is that Yo La’s music is too proudly suggestive to be in-your-face carnal.
Friday’s most memorable and explosive moment came during “Deeper Into Movies,” an impressionistic, Kaplan-sung rocker from I Can Hear the Heart. The lyrics, both live and on record, are too echoey to fully comprehend, but both the title and the music suggest an ache for escape. If Kaplan warrants a photo in some future history of rock guitar (he should), the pose he struck while choking out the backward-sounding guitar solo at the song’s end would be perfect: His legs splayed, his lips slack, his head in spasms, he faced his shrieking amp. Somewhere above the din, Hubley repeated something gorgeous and vague about the sky, trying hard to maintain some privacy in a very public moment that could have everything to do with her. CP