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Yes, Three Can Be Company, Not a Crowd

Yo La Tengo's husband-and-wife team offers two reminders: They do have a bandmate, and the songs aren't all about them.

March 12, 2000|ELYSA GARDNER | Elysa Gardner is a frequent contributor to Calendar

NEW YORK — To read their press, you would think that Georgia Hubley and her husband, Ira Kaplan, are the most gifted family songwriting team since George and Ira Gershwin. For more than a decade, the leaders of the Hoboken, N.J.-based band Yo La Tengo have enjoyed the sort of worshipful praise that inspired the term "critics' darling."

So you probably wouldn't expect them to take issue with the typically fawning reviews of their new album "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out."

Guess again.

What the couple disputes, if gently, is the popular perception that this 10th effort was conceived as, to quote from Michelle Kleinsak's review in the online music store CDNow, "a rumination on love and marriage"--specifically on their love and marriage.

In Rolling Stone, for instance, Rob Sheffield called the album "the finest batch of marital ballads since Lou Reed's 'The Blue Mask.' " The New York Times' Jon Pareles described Yo La Tengo's new material as "songs about memories of falling in love, about causing each other pain, about chronic fights and about compromises."

Sitting in the orchestra section of Manhattan's Town Hall during a break in rehearsals for the band's sold-out performance that evening, Hubley and Kaplan attempt to set the record straight.

"I think some people zero in on certain songs that they think are about us that aren't about us," says Hubley, who sings and plays drums in the band. "In reality, I feel like the music on the record is the result of three musicians interacting," alluding to the fact that Yo La Tengo bassist James McNew also collaborates in the band's songwriting.

"But I do think our lyrics have in the past maybe been a little vaguer in their content than they are on this record," she allows. "There's a more intimate quality to this record than some of the other records, perhaps."

Indeed, while "And Then Nothing" features the offbeat melodic approach and quirky noise-rock textures that have earned Yo La Tengo--which headlines the El Rey Theatre on Monday--comparisons to the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth, it is overall a somewhat more subdued, pensive collection than the band's previous albums. And the lyrics examine the joys and challenges of love in a way that often seems deeply personal.

"You say that all we do is fight/I wonder why we have so much trouble cheering each other up sometimes," singer-guitarist Kaplan intones on the softly shimmering "The Crying of Lot G," while on "One Way to Fall," he sings, "I remember before we met/sitting next to you/pretending I wasn't looking/we're on our way to fall in love."

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Hubley and Kaplan, who look late-30ish but decline to disclose their ages--or how long they've been married--certainly seem like a compatible pair. The daughter of Oscar-winning animators, Hubley was raised in a cultured household on Manhattan's Upper West Side and attended various art schools.

Kaplan, whose father was executive vice president of a building corporation, grew up in the suburb of Croton-on-Hudson, but he often ventured into the city with his parents and three brothers, and he attended the famously artsy Sarah Lawrence College.

When he met Hubley in the early '80s, Kaplan was a rock critic, writing for publications such as New York Rocker and SoHo News. "I wasn't much of a critic," he says. "I was more of a cheerleader for bands that I thought could use a cheer. I just wanted to be in a band, and since I wasn't in one, this was a way to get free records and go to shows and be close to what I wanted to be doing."

Hubley shared his passion, and his penchant for hanging out in celebrated New York rock clubs such as CBGB and Max's Kansas City. Yo La Tengo (the name is the Spanish version of a baseball player's cry of "I got it") made its own debut at a beloved Hoboken haunt, Maxwell's. The group released five albums on various independent labels between 1986 and 1992, before signing with Matador Records in 1993.

At that time, Matador was distributed by a major label, Atlantic Records. But since Matador lost Atlantic's backing in 1995, Yo La Tengo has been an indie rock band in the truest sense of the term. Granted, it's not exactly a term Kaplan relishes.

"I think 'indie rock' is an insult in a way," he says. "It can be used almost to suggest you're not that ambitious. And I just think phrases like 'indie rock' and 'alternative rock' are overused well past the point of meaninglessness. It's always sort of seemed like nonsense."

Kaplan is in fact rather defensive about the group's cult-favorite status. Asked if he would like Yo La Tengo's music to reach a wider audience, he retorts, "Well, we're talking to you, aren't we?

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