I have a vague memory of watching some proto-reality show on MTV as a kid, where a group of people were watching clips from different music videos they’d selected. It was mostly mainstream stuff, but then some super lo-fi, homemade-looking thing came on: Yo La Tengo’s “Sugarcube.” I think everyone was pretty nice about it, saying things like “oh sure, I like indie rock.” I didn’t entirely get what indie rock was yet. It seemed kind of boring.
Within a year or two I was an obsessed indie nerd, an interest that obviously stuck. Even so, it’s always been difficult for me to wholeheartedly love Yo La Tengo. They’re the platonic ideal of what indie rock meant when I was just a little too young to get it. You’ve got your Thurston Moore guitar noise, your Bob Pollard sloppy efficiency, your Stephen Malkmus disaffected vocals. All key elements of what indie rock was in its prime, and all artists I like, but at a distance – it isn’t quite my music. It’s another generation’s, one I’ve mostly seen perform as post-peak solo acts or on reunion tours.
The difference with Yo La Tengo is they’ve never paused. And as much as I’ve occasionally struggled to feel their aesthetic, I still listen to every record, because every so often there’s a song that kicks me square in the face. The same record that has “Sugarcube” also has “Autumn Sweater,” a song that certainly would have blown me away and drawn me to buy the album had that been my introduction. “Our Way to Fall” is another example, a perfectly intimate, gorgeous ballad I can’t quite imagine any other band pulling off. And then, “Ohm.”
“Ohm” is my favorite YLT song, and some days it’s my favorite song from this decade full stop. The entire track is a single-chord drone, played in a straightforward indie rock style and arrangement. The monotony of the one, continuously strummed open chord gradually pushes your ear to focus on the melody, the building guitar textures, the simple harmonies.
And the lyrics: Sometimes the bad guys come out on top / Sometimes the good guys lose / We try not to lose our hearts, not to lose our minds / Sometimes the bad days maintain their grip / Sometimes the good days fade / But the rain today hurts the head to dream / But nothing ever stays the same / Nothing’s explained / The higher we go, the longer we fly / Cause this is it for all we know / So say goodnight to me / And lose no more time, no time / Resisting the flow.
I get this one.