Barbican Concert Hall
My first thoughts on hearing ‘Ohm’, the opening track of this year’s Fade album, were somewhere along the lines of “Yo La Tengo have started channeling boy-band pop of the 1990s”. I could almost see Westlife rising from their stools during the final chorus. It took several listens to notice that that the song is made up of a single chord (D major, if you’re interested), and even longer to detect the layers of guitar feedback underpinning the whole thing. Indeed, in many ways this may be the closest the veteran Hoboken trio has come to a song which adequately encapsulates their music. That means loud/quiet dynamics happening at the same time, rather than the Pixies or Nirvana school of verse/chorus velocity shifts. It’s architecturally dense but subtle, all at once.
Tellingly, ‘Ohm’ was given two airings at the Barbican. Taking to the stage, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew first eased into a stripped-down, relatively quiet set: brushes on the side of the snare drum, distortion pedals (mostly) pushed to one side. This, however, was not a solemn, ‘unplugged’ occasion. Much of the first half was given over to the newer material from Fade, with a few vintage additions. The delicate ‘Tom Courtenay’, from 1995’s Electr-O-Pura LP has never sounded better and the ever-changing ‘Big Day Coming’, from the band’s breakthrough 1993 opus, Painful, received a drum-free piano and feedback makeover, bringing the first set to a softened conclusion while inevitably priming the room for the sonic assault to follow.
Sometimes, being aware of the structure ahead of an event doesn’t help things. Returning to our seats in anticipation of ‘the loud set’, it felt odd knowing exactly what was to come from so inherently unpredictable a band. Kicking off with ‘Stupid Things’, one of the few songs from Fade not performed in the earlier set, the expected energy at first failed to fully materialise. Luckily, they were building to it. The bass and heavily distorted organ of ‘False Alarm’ and the jerky, primitive rhythms of ‘Paddle Forward’ would have inspired hundreds of twitchy dance moves, if not for the Barbican’s (rather comfortably upholstered) seating.
By the second performance of ‘Ohm’, frontman Ira Kaplan seemed to have stepped up to the challenge of sheer volume amid the sedate atmosphere of the Barbican’s concert hall. Repeating a song might have felt self-indulgent; tonight, however, it felt essential.
Yo La Tengo work best when diving between genres, swapping instruments, delighting with originals and covers that you’d long forgotten about. Some albums feel like freeform radio. It’s no surprise that the band are a supporter of the medium – earlier in the week they’d performed their annual all-request show to raise funds for New Jersey’s WFMU. But despite a lack of this signature stylistic twisting and turning, tonight’s show was still a success, mainly thanks to the consistent brilliance of the band’s songwriting, something that can often go unnoticed during a ten-minute feedback section. It didn’t tonight.