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Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, of Hoboken, N.J.’s Yo La Tengo, are married. Despite the rumors, Matt Johnson and Kim Schifino, better known as the Brooklyn band Matt & Kim, are not.
At Matt & Kim’s sold-out show at the Black Cat Wednesday, Schifino showed off what has to be indie pop’s most expressive face, while Johnson—with his Von Trapp good looks and overstimulated banter—spent half of the band’s hyperactive set pogoing on his stool. No drums-and-keys duo is more animated and entertaining, nor more modest, nor more, well, annoying. The set was all minute-long brat-pop nuggets and synthed-up arena themes (“Rock And Roll Part 2,” “The Final Countdown,” ODB‘s “Shimmy Shimmy Ya”), and the crowd (youngish) ate it up. As for me, it was hard to begrudge Johnson and Schifino their success: They were too adorable.
Kaplan and Hubley (along with their bandmate James McNew) offer little in the way of body language. A shared smile and a quip from Kaplan after the couple forgot the lyrics to a Beach Boys cover (“Farmer’s Daughter”) was about all the physical rapport on display at a sold-out 9:30 Club last night. Here was a headier affair, and a nerdier one: Yo La Tengo opened with an acid test (“Here To Fall”), continued with 10-plus minutes of deep drone and blissed-out harmonies (“More Stars Than There Are In Heaven”), dug deep into its repertory (covers of Black Flag and Half Japanese), and even deeper into its celebrated discography (I counted a half-dozen crowd-pleasers, give or take).
Its indie cred and noisy propensity notwithstanding, Yo La Tengo has long nurtured a profoundly poppy sensibility while just as often thriving on repetition; their best songs—of which the band played quite a few last night, including “Autumn Sweater,” “Tom Courtney,” and “Sugarcube”—combine those impulses. To wit: Yo La Tengo’s may be the smartest take on record-collector rock.
For “Avalon Or Someone Very Similar,” from Yo La Tengo’s new Popular Songs album, the trio scrapped the studio version’s Bacharachian sheen, favoring noisy economy. In “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House,” meanwhile, the group hewed closer to the original’s cool, sophistipop reading. Even during its most consciously unintellectual songs—like “Periodically Triple Or Double,” which sports the lyric “I never read Proust/seems a little too long”—Yo La Tengo appeared less like a band playing its material than one thinking about it out loud. Once or twice, that meant longish, slow-building songs best consumed in solitude, not in a packed club. Most of the time, it meant a nearly perfect Yo La Tengo show.
If Yo La Tengo demands patience and rewards it with smart pop, Matt & Kim make music for short attention spans—think loud drums, farty bass lines, carnivalesque melodies, and infectious choruses about nothing in particular. At one point Johnson, who plays keyboards and sings, told his giddy audience that “Daylight,” from the band’s recent album Grand, is the most meaningful song he’s written. Its chorus goes like this: “In the daylight, I don’t pick up my phone/cause in the daylight anywhere feels like home.” Would that we all had it so good.
Photo from Brando Wu’s (really awesome) set. You can listen to the complete Yo La Tengo show at NPR.