The Magnificent ’90s: Ira Kaplan

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Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo
Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo
Ira Kaplan

In 1989, Yo La Tengo seemed like just another humdrum entry into alternative music. Guitarist (and husband) Ira Kaplan had teamed up with drummer (and wife) Georgia Hubley for three lo-fi excursions, none of which were exactly dazzling. Granted, those first three albums showed the occasional flash of greatness, but they largely blended into the noisy, messy ocean of guitar rock that had become routine by the turn of the decade.

Flash forward to 1990. Not a lot had changed for rock in that year, but everything had changed for Yo La Tengo. The first few seconds of “Can’t Forget,” the debut track of Fakebook, makes you double-check the name on the LP. Did this gentle, lazy slide guitar hook really come from the same band whose previous album featured a 10-minute garage rock freakout?

It was, and it wasn’t. It was the beginning of the band that would reinvent itself with every outing, shattering the boundaries imposed by genre and style. Fakebook was essentially a cover album, performed almost entirely in a country-rock style reminiscent of Gram Parsons’ solo work. And whose work did they choose to cover? Everything from Jad Fair to John Cale.

It would’ve been suicide for a less capable band. But 21 years later, Fakebook remains one of Yo La Tengo’s strong efforts, due in large part to Ira Kaplan’s warm, understated guitar work. Even as recently as 1989’s President Yo La Tengo, Kaplan’s style verged on derivative, constrained by a heavy punk influence.

In Fakebook, Kaplan’s playing is restrained, economical, pensive. Frankly, this seems more appropriately suited to his personality. Kaplan is no Keith Richards or Angus Young, and he’s much better for it. Instead of painting himself as another punk or hard-rocker – which we had seen plenty of throughout the ‘80s – Kaplan is perfectly comfortable in his own nerdy skin. He’s going to dazzle you with his playing, not with his stage presence. (Yo La Tengo made light of this in the music video for their hit “Sugarcube,” in which a record exec forces them to attend “rock school.”)

Of course, that’s not to say that Kaplan can’t rock with the best of them. If Yo La Tengo’s first three records didn’t prove that, the band proved it again in “Mushroom Cloud of Hiss,” a 9-minute standout on 1992’s May I Sing with Me. Where Fakebook provided the band’s breakthrough, May I Sing with Me introduced glimpses of the band’s later stylistic identity: fiery psychedelic jams, languid drone-pop tunes, and the occasional chart-friendly earworm.

May I Sing with Me set the table for Painful, which further explored this multi-faceted approach. Driven almost entirely by Kaplan’s guitar work, Painful fluctuates between the noisy and the dreamy, the contained and the unhinged, often in the course of a single song.

Yo La Tengo’s masterpiece, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, is probably the most introspective of the band’s ‘90s oeuvre. Not coincidentally, it’s also the finest. Kaplan’s unique style is fully realized on this album, making more out of less in “Green Arrow,” “Damage” and “Deeper into Movies,” and showing his propensity for drone in “Moby Octopad” and “Spec Bebop.” The aforementioned “Sugarcube” is a refined version of the punk workouts from earlier in the band’s career, displaying Kaplan’s creative and hook-driven leads.

By no stretch of the imagination is Yo La Tengo a one-man effort. In fact, what makes the band so impressive is the perfectly balanced collaboration of its three members. Kaplan, Hubley and bassist James McNew often switch instruments and share vocal duties, giving each member a fair share of the spotlight.

Yet, it’s for this very reason that Ira Kaplan hasn’t gotten his fair share of respect within the guitar community. Yo La Tengo functions so well as a complete unit that critics and fans alike forget to pay due to its constituent members. Kaplan is only one-third of the equation, but his guitar work represents the best that the band has to offer. It’s the intersection of youth and experience, the tension between the soft luminescence of dreams and the bitter harshness of reality. And, perhaps most importantly: the profound meaning that exists between the lines.

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Adam Jazairi

Adam Jazairi is a writer, art historian, director, and literary critic, and I guess he sorta likes guitars, too. He has become a shameless gearhead with an incurable case of GAS (that’s “Gear Acquisition Syndrome,” for those of you who have been fortunate enough to be unfamiliar with this horrible illness). His heart has room for three true loves: his Tele, his JC-120, and his pedalboard.

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