Despite more than a decade of critical acclaim, intellectual indie-rockers Yo La Tengo are still as laid-back and approachable as their T-shirt-and-blue-jeans-clad fans.
Perhaps that's why listeners often accept what they hear on the group's albums — especially on the new relationship record And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out — as tales culled from the bandmembers' daily lives.
"People are spending a lot of time asking or guessing what is autobiographical, or that it's all autobiographical," singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan said recently. "That part is more amusing to me than anything else. That doesn't bother me, but I do like the idea of things being transformed or distorted" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).
Some details are true. Some are not. Sometimes fact and fantasy conspire in a single song, Kaplan, 42, said. But the feelings are all pulled straight from his heart. "The emotion expressed in [a] song is an emotion of mine," he said.
Although Yo La Tengo are revered for running alternately hot (through waves of distortion and feedback) and cold (in quiet drones and hums), And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, their ninth album, due Tuesday, positions itself almost exclusively in cooler, quieter territory.
The band — Kaplan; his wife, drummer/singer Georgia Hubley; and bassist James McNew — contrasts deceptive sonic simplicity against the messiness of everyday emotions.
"I wonder why we have so much trouble cheering each other up sometimes when one or the other of us is down?" Kaplan says in "The Crying of Lot G" (RealAudio excerpt). "If you're in a bad mood, I look at you and I think, 'Maybe she knows something I don't know. Maybe I should be upset.' "
Because the emotions ring so true, and because Kaplan and Hubley are one of indie rock's longest-married couples, it's easy for fans to make the leap that the lyrics spring straight from last night's dinner conversation.
"Their music is so intimate," said Gaylord Fields, a DJ at WFMU-FM in Jersey City, N.J. For years, Yo La Tengo have taken requests on Fields' show during the station's spring fund-raiser. Fans can check out this year's set March 18 at the station's Web site (www.wfmu.org).
"Lyrically, it seems to be about them," Fields continued. "The wall isn't there, of artist and fan, that is there with a lot of other bands. They look like regular people and have regular people's likes and dislikes and affections and annoyances. That comes across in both their stage persona and their real-life persona."
"Read the lyrics, it's written in layman's terms," said Roger Moutenot, who produced the most recent four Yo La Tengo albums and has worked with such artists as Lou Reed and Sleater-Kinney. "It's simple, but it's from the heart. ... They're just very real people, and that's what comes across on the record. It's not like, 'Let's make a record to sell millions of copies.' It's like, 'This is who we are.' "
On "Our Way to Fall" (RealAudio excerpt), Kaplan recounts a first encounter with a lover. The recording of his voice is as expertly textured as the instruments. We hear the "t" every time he says "might." The effect is that of two loves curled up in bed, recounting dear details of shared history.
Kaplan well remembers what it's like to make an emotional investment in music as a listener, not a player. Before assembling the group in Hoboken, N.J., Kaplan was a rock fan, record collector and music critic.
In "Last Days of Disco" (RealAudio excerpt), he tells of a party where two people meet for the first time and uncover, in that moment, magic in a song they'd otherwise despise.
"And the song said let's be happy, and I was happy," he sings. "It never made me happy before."
Though he swears the vignette is not autobiographical, Kaplan said he had Kool and the Gang's 1980 hit "Celebration" in mind when he wrote the lyric.
"They say, 'Celebrate!' and most of the time you just kind of roll your eyes at it. And then, one night, they say, 'Celebrate!' and you celebrate. I'm not a guy who puts his hands in the air when the people onstage say, 'Put your hands in the air!' That's not usually me. When they say, 'Get up and boogie,' I rarely get up and boogie. But doing it once ... that's what that means to me" (RealAudio excerpt of interview).