The Little Band That Could

Where to begin? I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One finds

the Hoboken, NJ-based trio of James McNew (bass, vocals), Georgia Hubley

(drums, synths, vocals) and Ira Kaplan (guitar, synths, vocals) in

alternatingly meditative and ultra- rockin' moods, fashioning agreeable

sounds that are simultaneously beautiful and gnarly -- and incomparably

smart. Never retro, nearly uncategorical, yet genre/stylistically all

over the map, totally mixing and matching stuff from one rock template

with another, Yo La Tengo's ninth album in twelve years is hands-down

their best effort to date.

This is what Keith Richards must feel like after one of his blood

transfusions--overcome with vigorous energy, but tempered by a hard-won

worldliness. He might be totally ready to rock like a kid in a garage,

but he also knows some of the things one can only know from being a

dedicated student of music history for multiple decades. Yo La Tengo's

Ira Kaplan is also well-known as a connoisseur of cool stuff. He wrote

for the excellent New York Rocker in the late seventies/early

eighties, and is super knowledgeable about lots of music, from

free jazz to psychedelia to post-punk to folk-rock to early instrumental

combos to space-synth weirdness.

But just because your palate is refined don't mean you're gonna be able

to cook when you

get behind the

stove. Precursors do exist for the well-developed split personality of

rock critic/rocker -- Patti Smith, Lenny Kaye and Peter Laughner come to

mind (though Laughner might be disqualified for straightfacedly

Dylan-ing the lines "Sylvia Plath/ Was never too good at math/ Though

they tell me she graduated/ At the head of her class"). And so does Ira

Kaplan. From the very start (sticking a punky rendition of Love's

"A House Is Not A Motel" on the b-side of the country-folk flavored "River

Of Water" on their first, self-released 7" in 1985), this group wore

their rock knowledge on their sleeves. They were favorites of college

kids and rock cognoscenti of all ages, and you went to their shows

wondering what cool obscure cover would be next, thoroughly energized by

the band's ability to reap new fruit from fields first sown by the

Kinks, Modern Lovers, Gram Parsons and the Velvet Underground. But they

were never a cover band; they just used those pre-existing great songs

as a protective covering.

I'm mesmerized by the ease with which Yo La can switch gears from the seemingly

incompatible genres of country-rock, bossa nova, folk, pure pop, noise-rock,

beach blanket

bingo, and space-mantra, and the fluidity of the segues on I Can Hear

The Heart

Beating As One. The way the

opening one and a half minutes -- the melodic, twangy, atmospheric

desert soundscape of "Return To Hot Chicken" (the title is sort of a

reference to the Flying Burrito Brothers, and probably an in-joke from

a

cross-country tour) -- slides right into the delicious track "Moby

Octapad," with its catchy, walking bassline and hepcat, mid-tempo human

breakbeat which is soon covered with a light mist of feedback and weird

sound effects (hey, that horn sound is the same one the Who used on

The Who Sell Out), the words leisurely sung by all three members

in turn. I'm in love with the way the melodies intertwine, the

reference-heavy lines ("Cease To Exist" was the title of that Beach Boys

song co-written with Charles Manson) underscored and supported by the

cool, California breeze of rock & roll building-block

bah-bah-dee-bahhhh's. In the middle of the song, an angular piano line

jump-starts the tune back to its rockist, healthy, all-too-brief life.

The album is filled with brilliant songs and sounds, from the languid

synth-pop of "Autumn Sweater" to the revved-up, meth-aggro assault of

"Spec Bebop," and just two, cute little cover songs. This is such an

energizing record. When Ira sings "I'm feeling like a kid again" on

"Damage," I most enthusiastically concur. Even I Can Feel The Heart

Beating As One's most moody, contmplative moments are suffused with

pure melodies and subtle invention, the product of active minds pumped

with the eternal teenage sounds of rock music. Yo La Tengo aren't out to

re-invent the wheel, but when they stick those hand-crafted

silver-plated hubcaps on, it sure looks a lot prettier, doesn't it?