Popular or not, Yo La Tengo still thrills

By James Reed
Globe Staff / September 18, 2009

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“Popular Songs,’’ the name of Yo La Tengo’s terrific new album, could be read as an in-joke between the band and its fans. The humor lies in Yo La Tengo’s definition of what’s popular, and safe to say its latest isn’t going to give Lady Gaga a run for her Top 40 money.

In case that album title implies Yo La Tengo has softened since its inception in (get ready to feel old) 1984, the band’s incendiary show at the Wilbur Theatre Wednesday night sent a clear message: This is still, and stridently, a band that’s not interested in getting too comfortable.

It was also a startling reminder that Yo La Tengo remains one of modern rock’s most dynamic and versatile bands, easily toggling between sweet ballads (“The Weakest Part’’) and jagged rockers (“Cherry Chapstick’’), often back to back.

The trio’s catalog is as erratic as it is unruly, but live performances are uniformly thrilling. If anything, 90 minutes might be skimping on the band’s celebrated detours into avant-noise epics, film scores, and cheeky cover songs.

But the band - guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew - roared out of the gate with squalls of distortion as Kaplan and McNew lifted their instruments to the vintage amps, as if offering sacrifices to the indie-rock gods.

And if they didn’t get too comfortable, they certainly didn’t allow the audience to feel that way, either. On “All Your Secrets,’’ reimagined as a bit of spook-jazz pop, Kaplan dirtied it up with a blast of discordance on an organ.

They were full of surprises, too. They dedicated a Sun Ra cover (“Rocket Number Nine’’) to Governor Deval Patrick, whose father played with the late jazz experimentalist, and fleshed out a few songs with an eight-piece string section the band had just met that day.

The group turned a cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda’’ into something unsettling: a hulking saga of surf-pop filtered through My Bloody Valentine’s distortion lens. Complete with flashing lights, it looked and sounded as deranged as Gene Wilder’s psychedelic boat ride in “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory.’’

Warming up the stage with a lean blast of angular guitar rock, Japanese trio Yura Yura Teikoku was a fitting opener, just as interested in its music’s fringes as the headliners so obviously were.

James Reed can be reached at

With Yura Yura Teikoku
At: Wilbur Theatre, Wednesday

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