Yo La Tengo – Ride the Tiger

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist

I got into Yo La Tengo very late – and only after an aborted attempt in 1994 on the heels of Electr-O-Pura – but fortunately, they were still an active band, recording and releasing quality music. I’ve seen them live twice:  once was excellent and the other time, not so much. They formed in New Jersey in 1984, and while members have come and gone, the core trio has been former music critic Ira Kaplan, spouse Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew.

What I Think of This Album

This is the first Yo La Tengo album, and while it’s not exactly an accurate template for what the band would go on to do for the next thirty years, you can hear some future Yo La Tengo in here. In the liner notes to the expanded reissue, Kaplan credits then-member Dave Schramm for the guitar sounds (in fact, the credits list Kaplan as “naive guitar” and Schramm as “informed guitar”), but Kaplan’s emerging songwriting is the reason to own this (that said, I don’t regard this as a necessary purchase for anyone other than a serious Yo La Tengo fan).

“The Cone of Silence” has an instantly agreeable jangle to it, and a solid solo at just about the two minute mark; Kaplan’s vocals are easy and laid-back, very much of the Lou Reed school (his voice reminds me a bit of the Feelies’ Glenn Mercer – it must be something in the New Jersey water). The noisy “The Evil That Men Do” is appropriately unsettling. The dark tone continues on the tom-centric “The Forest Green,” the first song of three on this album with Clint Conley of Mission of Burma on bass; he also produced the album. Yo La Tengo slows down on the spacious “The Pain of Pain” (what a fantastic title), which could easily be a track from one of their 2000’s albums; Georgia adds her vocals here to nice effect.

Schramm wrote the excellent, deadpan Byrds-by-way-of-the-Velvet-Underground “The Way Some People Die” as well as the slightly less strong “Five Years” (though both share a melody to a degree). Hubley gets to cut loose a bit on the drums on “The Empty Pool,” written by Feelies’ percussionist Dave Weckerman. “Alrock’s Bells” is another gentle, almost fragile, song that points to greater things – when Hubley joins in on harmony after over two minutes, it’s thrilling. “Screaming Dead Balloons” is a gangly, nervous song – all elbows and knees – on which Kaplan provides his most forceful vocal on the album. There is also a Kinks cover (“Big Sky”) that seems like a misstep. The reissue adds four songs:  both sides of a single, and a pair of live songs. The A side (“The River of Water”) is of a jangly piece with the rest of the album and the B side – a Love cover – is fine (I don’t like Love) with some nice drumming from Hubley and a rather pointless guitar solo. The first live song is the apparently menu-inspired “Crispy Duck,” with some cool guitar twangs and other noises, finally giving way to a fun solo; the other is an enthusiastic cover of Sammy Walker’s “Closing Time.”

The Best Thing About This Album

“It’s not the question / It’s who you ask.” I can’t deny that “The Way Some People Die” is the best song here, though it is not technically a Yo La Tengo tune. A close second is “Alrock’s Bells.”

Release Date

January, 1986

The Cover Art

I like this cover (designed by Hubley) a lot. The band’s name overlaid on top of the backwards band name is fantastic; the saber-tooth tiger skeleton is cool and I dig the large light blue field taking up the bottom 40% or so of the cover. I don’t love the font for the title (which is difficult to read), but everything else is so right, I can overlook that easily.

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