Yo La Tengo (Matador Records, 2009)
First off, Yo La Tengo is not a salsa band. They're not even Hispanic. They are white, artsy-bohemian types in their mid-to-late 40s. The band name, which means "I have it," was what guitarist Ira Kaplan heard a Spanish-speaking New York Mets outfielder using to call a teammate off a fly ball.
Yo La Tengo is heavily identified with New York's lower Manhattan underground culture, so much so that they were chosen to portray The Velvet Undergound in an Andy Warhol bio-pic.
But they proudly base themselves across the river in decidedly less hip Hoboken, New Jersey. There, every December, they do an in-studio fundraiser for their community radio station. You call in a pledge, and Yo La Tengo plays your request, live. Every December they host and organize Chanukkahpalooza, an eight-night series of performances at a Hoboken night club, all for local charities. The band has persisted now for more than 25 years without either becoming famous or doing anything to be ashamed of. Even more remarkable, the two main movers of the band, Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, have persisted in marriage for almost that long.
Popular Songs has plenty to bolster Yo La Tengo's "underground" rep. The album ends with two very long instrumentals-one an acoustic guitar trance loop and the other nine minutes of squalling electric feedback. But those can be easily ignored, coming, as they do, after a full album's worth of tracks featuring delicious melodies, funky bass lines, and even a call and response vocal duet, all of which are more Motown than Soho. The opening track, "Here to Fall" (..."for you"), even features orchestral strings and wah-wah guitar worthy of Shaft-era Isaac Hayes.
If you don't think that mature, intelligent rock-and-roll is an oxymoron, then Yo La Tengo is a band worth catching.