Yo La Tengo - Painful

This is something I wrote on an old website as part of a series on favorite records. It's several years old now. Have some mid-late 2000s style music blogging. It's killing me not to edit any of it, but... it's a time capsule. From the vault.

Similar to Lungfish, Yo La Tengo is a band with a huge and flawless discography. They've released well over a dozen LPs and probably a bazillion other things over their decades long career in music. They are a band unafraid to experiment with different styles of music and even how they perform live.

Like with Lungfish, I don't know what the consensus "best" Yo La Tengo record is. This series isn't about the "best," right, but the albums that mean the most to me. That instantly makes Yo La Tengo's Painful the go-to choice here. Painful is one of their more consistent -- in overall sound -- records. Others, like I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, explore a lot of different styles of music in one place. Painful is consistent and lets you slip into its world completely. You, as a listener, are allowed to spend 49 minutes in a very predictable, in a good way, atmosphere.

I'm a huge fan of bands and albums that can be described as "fall music." That has to be the #1 descriptor of Painful. You can't listen to it without thinking about changing leaves, a dip in temperature, spending more time indoors, sipping warm drinks, carrying a blanket around all over the place (just me that does that?). It has soundtracked about a million early evening drives from September to December for me. It gets dark around 4:30 here once you get to the fall time change, so heading out around 5pm means Painful is the default choice for driving music.

Yo La Tengo is a band known, at least to fans, as having a good sense of humor. Maybe not always in the music, but in interviews and live shows they can be hilarious in a dry way. The relationship between Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan, the band's two lead singers, is no doubt the greatest love story of indie rock. Whereas people talk about pairs like Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore (RIP) of Sonic Youth, Georgia and Ira have always written the most tender and aware relationship songs. The Crying of Lot G off And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is not just one of the best relationship songs ever, but one of the best songs ever, period. Ira's narration could not be better as he sings-talks:

You say that all we ever do is fight

Gee, I don't know that that's true.

Then I wonder, am I right?

Or is that part of our problem?

Maybe I'm out of my mind.

Maybe I'm blocking out the truth.

But it seems like just a little thing, like you don't want to listen, and I can't shut up.

The way the song ends is so movingly delivered by both Ira and Georgia that it's hard not to tear up, even after hearing it for hundredth time:

The way that I feel when you laugh is like laughing.

The way that I feel when you cry is so bad.

But okay -- this is about Painful and here I am talking about a song off another album. That's partially because I couldn't ignore that song, but also to give context how incredibly this band both writes songs and delivers them. Painful has its own take on this with the brutally-delivered I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long. The song has barely any words, but ends with one of the greatest turns of phrase I've heard in music: "The things about you that would drive me wild / still drive me wild / but now in a different way." The words themselves aren't done justice without hearing Ira's voice singing them. You can hear the frustration of all the friendships and relationships they sum up when the words come out of his mouth.

Painful also features From a Motel 6, which is hands-down the single greatest shoegaze song ever written. It has a few lines about driving and traveling, which may be part of what helps the album set the mood for fall cruising so well. Of course, the song goes beyond that and seems to deal with conflict, communication problems, and distance in a relationship. The song sets out a description of a couple on the road, where at least one of them is presumed to want both distance and contact ("You want disconnection / You want me there enough for two") by the other. The other half of the pair describes laying in bed watching TV with the ability to close the distance, but then makes the decision to be withholding ("You're close / but I won't reach"). The song describes a sort of relationship standstill surrounded by bickering, but, by the end of the song, features a wonderful change up that takes an earlier, "Oh no, your heart is broken, don't you think that's a little trite?" and becomes, "Oh no, your heart is broken, well, you can have what's left of mine." The song's gloomy line "Stuck in sad / car stuck in drive" provides great imagery. Maybe it's not a universal feeling, but I can attest that feeling of being trapped on the road and feeling like emotional garbage is the worst.

Those songs are awesome. Could there be a best song on the album -- a best song that isn't one of the above? I think yes: Double Dare. I suspect "feel" and "bad" are big on the Yo La Tengo word cloud. They both show up in the opening lyrics of this song. It begins with, "I, I should have known / you shouldn't have to tell me" and continues, "Sometimes, it's the way we feel / or the way we feel we feel: pretty bad." Yo La Tengo are masters at what isn't quite wordplay, or maybe it is quite wordplay, but something close. They deliver words like these melodically, so it feels like the softest punch you've ever felt has just completely knocked you out. The Crying of Lot G is an example of this, where the band ends the song with "The way that I feel when you laugh is like laughing / The way that I feel when you cry is so bad." Your brain almost wants to hear the last part as "The way that I feel when you cry is like crying," but when you get the "so bad" part instead your brain has to work doubletime to account for the change in pattern, I think. You expect a rhyme or a similar phrasing to the first line, but it's not there, so you're hit like a ton of bricks. The same thing happens in From a Motel 6 when it goes from "Don't you think that's a little trite?" to "You can have what's left of mine." Only, instead of bumming you out, it has a mellow cheeriness to it. You aren't expecting it in the middle of the song, especially after the first version of the line that is so straight up demeaning about another person's feelings.

There is a very specific memory I have of this album. It's goofy, but: A couple years ago, I remember driving from my house in the middle of nowhere to this little town of a couple thousand people to get some fast food dinner. The dinner: french toast sticks from Sonic. I put Painful on and listened to it roundtrip, or for about an hour, and now whenever I listen to the album, mostly what I think of is that drive. I'm not sure why. There was a bit of snow and ice on the ground, so I think it was late fall when it happened. I remember the french toast smelling really, really strongly. This isn't the most romantic memory you can have of something, yeah, but it feels good when I remember it. And sometimes the way we feel we feel is... pretty good.