Yo La Tengo
Today is the Day! EP
his song is from our new album…sort of.”
With those words, Ira kicked off the song, a blazing rave-up that was an early highlight of their Philly show over last Spring Break. The song, of course, was “Today is the Day,” last heard as a mellow semi-ballad on Yo La Tengo’s last full-length, Summer Sun. The song was one of the only bright moments on what was, in retrospect, a career nadir for the band. The album was overwhelmed with a wealth of mediocrity not heard since their almost entirely bland and unmemorable debut, Ride the Tiger. And it wasn’t just because they had gotten rid of their signature distortion-laden hooks, covered with enough fuzz to be the aural equivalent of the greatest cotton candy. And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out did that, too, but it remains a classic Yo La Tengo album due to its gorgeous winter-by-the-fireplace atmosphere and its heart-tugging lyrics and melodies. If And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is the sound of a band maturing, then Summer Sun is the sound of a band simply getting old. And in rock, there is no excuse for that.
Puncturing a boring slump of so-so rehashes of their entirely concert-inappropriate Summer Sun material (so boring, in fact, that I committed the greatest breach of live music etiquette and sat down in the middle of the venue), this revisit to “Today is the Day” rocked me back to attention. It is similarly grabbing as the lead track on the appropriately titled Today is the Day EP, Yo La Tengo’s first officially pulled single from the Summer Sun LP. In the months since the album’s release, the song has mutated from the low-key Bacharach-esque number found on the album to a power-pop anthem (note the titular exclamation mark—Today is no longer the Day, Today is now the Day!) with screamingly loud bass, honey-glazed distortion and a ripping guitar solo. The song is stilted slightly by Georgia’s somewhat stilted drumming towards the end (surprising, since her effectively propulsive drumming on past rave-ups has singled her out as the clear successor to Mo Tucker), but remains a classic YLT rocker in a vein not heard since 1995’s Electr-O-Pura. This is a good thing. This is a very, very good thing.
It’s not just that Yo La Tengo have added distortion to the song. I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss their explosive side on recent releases, but they’ve long since proven themselves a three-dimensional band capable of more than simply rocking out all the time. No, it’s the attitude that really makes the difference. One of the worst things about Summer Sun was how annoying the band’s attitude was—Ira’s attempts to become a hip jazz cat were damn near nauseating (“Moonrock Mambo,” anyone?) and the sheer thrill of music that has endeared the band to so many was gone, replaced by a sense of complacency and slowing down. “Today is the Day!,” on the other hand, is a dizzying return to the sincerity and passion of the Yo La Tengo of the mid 90s, the band who named their best album I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One and put a giant heart on the CD to demonstrate.
Of course, this is a Yo La Tengo single, and as such, there is a surfeit of bonus material. The next two tracks, “Style of the Times” and “Outsmarter” are similarly Velvet Underground-inspired fuzzfests, the latter sounding sort of like “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)” and the former harking all the way back to the sound of their President Yo La Tengo mini-LP. Both are fine tracks that don’t belong anywhere near their other recent material. And then, as if to say that it isn’t just the feedback that makes these songs special, the rest of the EP is a quieter affair. The next two tracks, “Needle of Death” (a Bert Jansch cover) and “Dr. Crash” (a “Tired Hippo”-style instrumental) are not nearly as compelling as those on the first half of the EP, but are decent enough, and mercifully free of the smarmy Summer Sun feel.
The last track on Today is the Day! is a revision of the one Yo La Tengo song of the past five years that crushes even “Today is the Day!” in sheer god-like amplification. The 2 Fast 2 Furious rush of “Cherry Chapstick” is, ironically enough, turned into a sappy Ira + Guitar love ballad as the closer to the EP. Taken from a live performance for an Australian radio station in 2000, the track is disarmingly pretty, proving once and for all the obvious but necessary point that distortion or no distortion, acoustic or electric, hyper or laconic, it’s the songs that make Ira, James and Georgia so darn special (mawwwwwwww…..) It’s the most fitting way possible to end Today is the Day!
Music fans of the world rejoice— Yo La Tengo can once again hear the heart beating as one.