Thursday, April 29, 2010
Listening to Yo La Tengo can feel like peering into a couple’s bedroom window. Of course, that couple is Yo La Tengo singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan and his wife and band mate Georgia Hubley, who drums and sings in the longtime indie rock outfit.
The band, which includes bassist James McNew and performs at this year’s Henry Miller Library Annual Benefit Concert this Friday, has detailed all of the phases of Kaplan an Hubley’s romance, from awkward meeting – the hushed “Our Way to Fall” with lyrics including: “I remember walking up to you/ I remember my face turned red” – to the mental agony of being apart on the deeply paranoid guitar freakout “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1).”The couple even contemplates facing mortality together “walking hand in hand” on the slow-building, almost 10-minute-long “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” from their latest CD Popular Songs.
Kaplan admits that pulling open the blinds to reveal aspects of the relationship is something that he has sometimes had to fight through over the course of the band’s 26-year history.
“A lot of what we do is so intensely personal that there is a bit of a struggle to share it with people,” he says.
Like their lyrics that touch on seemingly every stage of courtship, their music also covers a lot of territory. There’s early gems like the barely controlled guitar chaos of “Let’s Compromise” and “Drug Test,” with its throbbing hangover headache bass line and pleas of “I wish I was high” along with latter day feats including the falsetto-crooned dance goof “Mr. Tough” and the stirring strings meet technological thump of “Here to Fall.”
On their 12th album, 2009’s Popular Songs, they expand into unusual territory for an indie rock band. “If It’s True” is pure Motown soul with a string section arranged by Richard Evans, a music veteran who has worked with Sun Ra, Stan Getz and Nina Simone. “Periodically Triple or Double,” meanwhile, is a funky R&B workout that resembles something from Booker T. & the M.G.s.
“It was so different for us that it took us a while to figure out whether it was the novelty that made [“Periodically Double or Triple”] good or whether it seemed genuinely good,” Kaplan says. “Ultimately, we just decided that it wasn’t just a novelty.”
Having formed way back in 1984, Yo La Tengo will have a vast amount of songs to draw from for their Henry Miller Library show, but even longtime fans might have a bit of difficulty recognizing what they are playing at the benefit. That is because Kaplan says the songs, which will include contributions from San Francisco experimental filmmaker Paul Clipson and multi-instrumentalist Ralph Carney, are being tweaked to highlight the library’s unique atmosphere.
“We are doing an unusual set of songs,” he says. “We will play some songs that we nevaer do or rarely do and other songs that we are rearranging for the evening.”
A few miles north on Highway 1, the Mother Hips will be hosting another music event that kicks off the same evening and will offer its own index of YouTube-ready moments. Following the success of last year’s Hipnic at Henry Miller, the Mother Hips, a California rock act that has been performing off and on since 1991, are inviting a handful of the state’s best up-and-coming acts to perform at a two-day music festival within Fernwood’s campgrounds.
Featuring closing sets by the Mother Hips each night, the Second Annual Hipnic includes performances by 12 other acts on the main stage, including Sparrows Gate, a Central Coast country rock quartet with killer slide guitar playing, and The Parson Red Heads, a Los Angeles band with airy harmony vocals hovering over jangly guitar rock.
In a phone call from his San Francisco recording studio, the Mother Hips’ guitarist and vocalist Tim Bluhm explains the appeal of the some of the Hipnic’s biggest acts. One performer that he is excited to have returning to the Hipnic is Kyle Fields, who plays stream-of-consciousness sounding folk and rock as Little Wings. “He’s just a beautiful singer and a really unpredictable performer,” Bluhm says. “He has some of the best lyrics of anyone ever, one of my favorite lyricists of all time.”
Having made a big splash at this year’s South By Southwest Music Festival, the Los Angeles rock quartet Dawes will be doing sets on Friday and Saturday nights.
“They are a young band from Los Angeles,” Bluhm says. “They are really groovy and just rocking with good vibes and a lot of energy.”
Bluhm says that one of the festival’s rising stars is Jackie Greene, a young singer/songwriter who has performed locally at the Monterey Jazz Festival and Carmel’s Sunset Center. Greene will be all over the stage at this year’s Hipnic, with a solo set on Saturday night and a performance with Bluhm in their side project the Skinny Singers early Friday evening.
“He has that quality that makes people pay attention no matter what,” Bluhm says. “I’ve seen him rule really loud rooms with just an acoustic guitar and his voice. He’s undeniable.”