A Field Guide to Yo La Tengo:
Basic Information: Yo La Tengo's appeal lies almost entirely in their personality, but it can be hard for the uninitiated to know where to start. The band has been together in its current incarnation since 1991, consisting of married couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, and adorably weird heavyset man with strange hair James McNew. Amongst indie bands, they're known for their sense of humor. To wit:
(Additional hipster cred note: the video is a dead rip-off of De La Soul's for "Me, Myself and I")
They also perform pledge drives on New Jersey indie radio, with the (usually credible) promise that they can play anything (a number of these are collected on the aptly titled Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics); they also perform an annual set of concerts for Hanukkah at Maxwell's in their native Hoboken, on something like the same premise. One of their songs has a dance. They are not people who take themselves too seriously.
Style: Indie guitar rock. Neither Georgia nor Ira can sing in the conventional sense, but they can maximize their skills with greater skill than technically superior singers. After McNew joined the band, they made two important musical alterations, and one important change to the lyrics. In their first three albums, Yo La Tengo tended toward typical late-80s fast guitar pop. Beginning with 1993's Painful, they slowed the tempo of the songs, and began using drone as the primary means of melody and harmony. The end result are songs that become intensely focused on the melody and its variations: the sound of the music attends the lyrical content closely, either heightening the mood or providing ironic contrast. Lyrically, Ira and Georgia began writing much more about (one presumes) the topics of their near experience, primarily marriage, and what it's like to be in a relationship that has gone on for a long time. The songs address fights and conflict just as much as romantic moments, and stress the happy mundanity of life with someone you get along with: monogamy has never sounded like a better proposition.
Where to Begin: There are two acknowledged classics, and two others at the same level, preference among which determines which "kind" of fan you are. The two classics:
I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One: in which the band goes eclectic. The earlier albums, as great as they are, tend to be exercises in doing one thing only (albeit better than anyone does it). This is where they branch out: bossa nova, country, surf, rinky-dink pop: short, catchy songs, longer exercises that don't overstay their welcome. The major lyrical themes all canvassed. Highlights: "Moby Octopad," "Suugarcube," "Deeper Into Movies." Personal favorite: probably still "Green Arrow." Avoid: "Spec Bebop," unless you like 12 minute atonal drone pieces.
...and then nothing turned itself inside out: the concept album. The concept, in this case, being "what it's like to be married to someone." Quieter and slower than any other album, but with more immediate returns than one might expect from a quiet and slow album. Highlights: "You Can Have It All," "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" (named after one of Troy McClure's fake movies in The Simpsons), "The Last Days of Disco." Personal favorite: "Cherry Chapstick," a.k.a. 'the fast song.' Avoid: I've never been much of one for "Tired Hippo," but it's not a bad song.
Electr-o-pura: My personal favorite album of all time. Contains YLT's best 'single,' "Tom Courtenay." Possessed of the best guitar work of any of their albums. Look no further than to "Pablo and Andrea" for proof:
I mean, that guitar solo. Goodness. I'm not one to focus too much on lead guitar heroics, but it's incredible. Highlights: aside from the already-mentioned, "The Ballad of Red Buckets," "Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)," "Blue Line Swinger." Personal favorite: "Pablo and Andrea." Avoid: listen to this album all the way through.
Painful: some people think Painful is the great early YLT album. Those people are wrong. It has all the individual elements that would become great, but it lacks thematic coherence. But the tunes are solid. Has fiancee-reminding-me-of "Big Day Coming," which is a major plus. Highlights: "From a Motel 6," "Double Dare," "The Whole of the Law." Personal favorite: "Big Day Coming [Second Version]." Avoid: I usually stop after "The Whole of the Law," but there's no particular reason I do so.