Song of the day: Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater”

I’m 16 years late to the party but Lord have mercy. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One is the apotheosis of 1990s indie rock. Hell, let’s not even bother with the “indie rock” demarcation. Along with In on the Kill Taker, Copper Blue, and Automatic for the People, Yo La Tengo’s 1997 full-length stands as the best LP-besotted white folks have produced outside of the mainstream. Listening to “Autumn Sweater,” it’s astonishing to realize that it wasn’t a radio hit. It’s got everything: big beats, throbbing bass, melodic shifts, a love story, pop catchiness. Yes, record-store clerks loved it. But why didn’t everyone else? It’s possible, probable, that everyone else just didn’t hear it. Yo La Tengo doesn’t have the marketing muscle behind it that, say, U2 does. And, yes, you have to decide to love Ira Kaplan’s shy, hesitant singing. But millions flocked to Wayne Coyne’s manchild warble and Isaac Brock’s reedy caterwaul in the early 2000’s, and they didn’t have Georgia Hubley’s exuberant but intricate drumwork anchoring them. (Seriously, there’s a case that percussive women have provided the strongest, most positive, and most interesting—because they’re the least alpha-dog—forces for internal propulsion in rock over the past forty years. Where’s the Velvet Underground without Mo Tucker, to name one band that’s influenced everyone? And if you can name a more consistently explosive, working rock drummer than Sleater-Kinney’s Janet Weiss—outside of, of course, Yo La’s Georgia Hubley—I’ll eat my hat. And I own three.) Hubley gives “Autumn Sweater” the push that Kaplan’s vocals suggest but can’t find without help. James McNew, the band’s underrated bassist, finds his way comfortably into as many modes as Los Lobos’s Conrad Lozano. Yo La Tengo is a danceable band, despite its avant-garde longeurs, and “Autumn Sweater” remains one of its most danceable songs. Moving your feet, moving your pelvis, seems as important to the Hoboken heroes as it was to a number of artists who fused rhythm-heavy styles with art-rock ambition during the mid-1990s: Beck, Stereolab, Cornershop, Neneh Cherry, Los Lobos. Even U2 (it’s everywhere!) caught the Berlin disco wave for 1991’s Achtung Baby (the group’s best album), and R.E.M. floated a hip-hop-esque “Radio Song.” Of course, if you were being uncharitable, you could say 1990s rock was finally catching up to Prince, who’s still showing how it’s done in the 21st century. Still, I largely don’t see white indies consciously doing what Yo La Tengo did here, marrying big beats (ultra blackness) with indie diffidence (ultra whiteness) in a way that makes you give a damn.

About Walter Biggins

Walter Biggins is a writer based in Athens, GA. His work has been published in RogerEbert.com, Bookslut, The Comics Journal, Salon, The Baseball Chronicle, Jackson Free Press, and Valley Voices: A Literary Review. Follow him on Twitter (@walter_biggins), and check out his bimonthly newsletter (https://tinyletter.com/Walter_Biggins).
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One Response to Song of the day: Yo La Tengo’s “Autumn Sweater”

  1. Pingback: Tunes, tunes, arrgh, more tunes | Quiet Bubble

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