There’s little doubting that, when they look back at the music of the Nineties in years to come, indie rock will dominate discussions. There’s also a good chance that one particularly noteworthy group from Hoboken, New Jersey will get largely overlooked, because they usually do.
Never a genuine mainstream proposition, despite an arsenal of highly accessible tunes, Yo La Tengo have been plying their trade now for 30 years, combining wild psychedelic rambling with pop hooks and gentle lullaby-like ambience. Perhaps unsurprisingly for a band built around a husband and wife (guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley), Yo La Tengo’s music has always had an intimate vibe to it. Listening to the group’s records feels a little like eavesdropping on a private performance, whilst going to see the trio (rounded off by bassist James McNew, present since 1991) live often feels more like spending an evening with old friends than it does your standard rock gig.
No record the band has released better captures the intimacy of the band’s sound than 1993’s Painful. At times quiet and unassuming, at others dominated by Ira’s wailing guitar, it’s this album that has been reissued as the band turn 30. If it’s not the jewel in the crown that is their discography then that’s only because 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is slightly more diverse, and thus perhaps more representative of their career as a whole.
Repackaged here as Extra Painful, and featuring 12 bonus tracks (mostly demos and live versions), this release should hopefully serve as a welcome reminder of Yo La Tengo’s ability to tug the heartstrings, for Painful is, more than any other of the band’s records, the most dedicated ode to the tender struggles of romance. Opener ‘Big Day Coming’, with its delightful declaration of “Let’s wake up the neighbours, let’s turn up our amps”, sets the tone for a collection of 11 songs which often – as this Prefix feature in 2011 pointed out - whispers where it could shout.
Of course, whilst this is an album that wears its heart on its sleeve, it’s worth remembering at this point that Yo La Tengo have often preferred to take the subtlest routes available to them. So it follows that an album called Painful doesn’t always make a point of showing off its tangled emotional content. So ‘From a Motel 6’ hides lines like “Pull a woollen blanket across my eyes, dream a quiet place for us to fight” in a swirl of MBV-esque shoegaze and ‘Nowhere Near’ sees Georgia trail off when she sings “Doesn’t take much to tell that I love, oh I love…”
Yet, despite it all, Painful ultimately feels rather optimistic. A dose of pure, unadulterated romantic sweetness is provided by the cover of ‘The Whole of the Law’, which originally appeared as the opening track on the 1978 debut of largely forgotten London new wavers The Only Ones. “I used to have a notion that I could swim the length of the ocean, if I knew you were waiting for me”, Ira and Georgia sing in tandem, as softly as their voices allow. Given that much of the album expresses uncertainty and discontent, this brief two-minute dedication to love is delightfully affecting and, given that it is followed only by an alternate 'rock' version of ‘Big Day Coming’ and the hazy instrumental closer ‘I Heard You Looking’, it is effectively the closing message of the record. It’s a pat on the shoulder, a reassurance that everything is going to be ok.
Twenty-one-years on, is Painful really Extra Painful? I’m not quite sure. It’s hard, however, to imagine any fan of Nineties indie could dispute the gentle greatness of this record, or indeed this band. One doesn’t need the extras provided here for that. Like all fantastic records, Painful is, in some ways, preserved in acetate. This reissue is a welcome reminder of an album that has never quite gained the classic status it deserves, but despite this the vital ingredient – the intimate feeling at the heart of Painful - remains agelessly undamaged by the passage of time.
“Let’s take a walk, I wanna hold your hand, we don’t have to talk”
9Benjamin Bland's Score