Yo La Tengo could be the undersecretaries of rock, because like career public servants, they quietly go about their business of making great, keenly crafted music. The Hoboken, N.J., trio has spent a lifetime in the underground, never even scoring a small radio hit or commercial music placement.
Yet they've been accepted as critical darlings on the strength of a dozen studio albums, and their eclectic, evocatively textured catalog runs from one end of the dynamic spectrum to the other.
Sometimes they purvey a tender understated sweetness, swaying gently like trees in a soft summer breeze. In other moments, the guitar squalls and racing tempos swell into a muscular garage juggernaut. Frequently compared to the Velvet Underground (whom they even appeared as in the film I Shot Andy Warhol), they vacillate between quiet and loud, thanks in larger part to drummer Georgia Hubley's high, fragile vocals (which evoke those of VU drummer Moe Tucker) and their supple use of distortion.
While singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan would never deny his affection for the Velvets, he's quick to point out that it's hardly their only touchstone.
"In trying to run from the Velvet Underground comparison, I have pointed out numerous times that they're hardly the only band with wide dynamics in our record collection," says Kaplan. "We weren't as loud when we started. I certainly didn't have something that would scream feedback until later."
When they began a quarter-century ago, Hubley and Kaplan filled out the band with a series of part-time players. But with the addition of full-time bassist James McNew just prior to their fifth album, 1992's May I Sing With Me, the whole band began to evolve.
"It was the first time we treated the songs as something more than, 'There's three verses. It's in A. Let's go.' Instead it was really, 'What if we tried it his way? What if we tried this? What if we didn't have drums?' Just trying them in a variety of ways and from a variety of angles."
Since then, the musicians have continued to challenge themselves and their listeners, while remaining true to their initial sound. Each of Yo La Tengo's past four albums has broken into the Billboard Top 200, including their latest, 2009's Popular Songs, described by some as their most accessible.
But if you think that registering a high Billboard ranking might be gratifying for Kaplan, you'd be mistaken. "It didn't feel like that much of an achievement, I have to say. I don't know what that says, but it's true. Nothing short of getting on the Ed Sullivan Show would impress us."
Kaplan reports that while they've begun writing songs for another album, the present music business environment raises questions about when or even whether to release music.
"One reason we're working slower on the new record than we have in the past is the changing landscape, and the feeling, 'What does one do with new songs, and is there a need for a record in 2011 or 2012?'" he says.
"We don't ever want to do things just because an alarm clock goes off and it's time to make a record. We want to feel like we're doing something smart at the right time. So a lot of things go into thinking about that. It's hard to know what to make of this world."