Yo La Tengo – Painful

What I Think of When I Think of This Artist (part 3)

Weird that this band hits its stride on its sixth album, but this is one of the glories of independent music. Major labels exist to make money. Indie labels exist to make art. That’s an oversimplification, of course, but it’s close enough for jazz. What would my collection look like but for artists who at least got their start on indies? Thank God bands like Yo La Tengo were permitted to make music early so that we could hear everything they would later make as well.

What I Think of This Album

The first essential Yo La Tengo album (their sixth overall, and their second with now-essentially-permanent bassist James McNew), Painful adopts a greatly expanded approach, as the band explores shoegaze atmospherics, drooooooooooones, and the joys of keyboards. I don’t know how much credit goes to producer Roger Moutenot (who shared the work with Fred Brockman), but the band was happy enough to keep on collaborating with him past this initial effort.

The sound of the future meets the practice of the past, as the album opens with the first version of “Big Day Coming,” a shockingly effective song that consists of just feedback, a very quiet bass, hushed vocals (including about covering the Stones), and a repetitive organ riff; it still feels too short at seven minutes. “From a Motel 6” may make a joke of the Dylan song, but the guitar is pure shoegaze, which gets its due again on the smeary “Double Dare.” Atmospheric instrumental “Superstar Watcher” somehow manages to leave an impression in under two minutes. That sound carries over into organ-heavy “Nowhere Near,” sounding a lot like early Spiritualized/late Spacemen 3, but actually written by drummer Georgia Hubley.

The band seemingly pays tribute to its newest favorite instrument on the droning “Sudden Organ,” which could just as easily have been titled “Surprising Drums.” Kaplan’s vocals are excellent on the entire album, perhaps nowhere better than on the sweet “A Worrying Thing.” The guitars get a bit heavier on “I Was the Fool Beside You for Too Long,” another piece that seems heavily indebted to J. Spaceman and Sonic Boom. The tender, skeletal, subdued version of the Only Ones’ “The Whole of the Law” is enough to bring a tear to your eye. The second version of “Big Day Coming” showcases markedly louder vocals and muscular drumming. The album ends with another epic track, the exploratory, tidal “I Heard You Were Looking,” where Kaplan finally breaks loose.

The liner notes contain a reprinted “fan” letter hilariously excoriating the band for a less-than-appreciated live performance (“nebulous, abstract, feedback fucking nonsense”), incorporating aspects of the evening the band could not be responsible for (e.g., the lack of satisfactory ventilation at the Knitting Factory), and closing with the unimpeachable “up yours, you no talent fucks!” The only not-funny part is the anti-semitic slur tossed in the middle of the diatribe.

The Best Thing About This Album

“I Heard You Were Looking” is amazing.

Release Date

October, 1993

The Cover Art

This is another great Yo La Tengo cover (traditionally by Hubley, but no credit given on this release). A dark (quite a bit darker than the image I’ve uploaded here), heavily manipulated shot of a car driving by a New Jersey refinery, with maybe some long-exposure head/taillights, it’s a masterpiece of color and abstraction, and pairs perfectly with the music on the album. I like the dual colored font for the band name. The back cover is the same shot with different coloring.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Proudly powered by WordPress | Theme: Baskerville 2 by Anders Noren.

Up ↑