Indie Rock’s All Grown Up

From The Wall Street Journal:

t takes a village to raise a rock band. At least an indie-rock band in the mid-1980s. Back then, there wasn’t much money in rock outside the major labels, and most bands played for little more than satisfaction, gas money and occasional glory. A small community of like-minded souls loved the music enough to enable this quixotic pursuit, and together they gradually erected a parallel music industry. By the end of the decade, bands like R.E.M., Jane’s Addiction and the Pixies began to crack the commercial glass ceiling on the indie underground, and “indie” became “alternative,” if only because the music was often no longer on independent record labels. Now it’s “indie” again, although in the era of mega-sellers like the Arcade Fire, the Shins and My Morning Jacket, all of whom are on indie labels distributed by majors, no one seems to agree on what “indie” means anymore.

In Yo La Tengo’s case, the village was Hoboken, N.J., a quick PATH train ride under the Hudson River from hip, if baleful, Manhattan. Back then, Hoboken was a dowdy, corrupt and clannish town, but it had all the necessary infrastructure for a scene: dirt-cheap places to live, a nearby college radio station, a record store, a label or two, a decent recording studio, a couple of periodicals and, most pivotally, a supportive nightclub. Music journalist Jesse Jarnow exhaustively profiles Yo La Tengo, and the community that nurtured them, in “Big Day Coming.”

Big Day Coming: Yo La Tengo and the Rise of Indie Rock
By Jesse Jarnow
Gotham, 362 pages, $18

Yo La Tengo—singer-drummer Georgia Hubley, singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan, and singer-bassist James McNew—is one of the last, longest-lived and (by far) most commercially successful of the bands that came out of Hoboken in the 1980s. The group began by slavishly emulating indie-rock originators like the Feelies and the Violent Femmes and then more clamorous bands like My Bloody Valentine, Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. Once they found their voice, they realized the Platonic ideal of indie-rock’s chugging thrum, then branched out into an eclectic mix of Brazilian pop, British Invasion pastiche, balmy folk-pop, obscure covers, bristling sheets of noise, trip-hop and countless other styles—all delivered with old school indie-rock’s modest technique.

Yo La Tengo is the Little Band That Could, parlaying a relatively modest-selling 13-album catalog into a 28-year career. Unfortunately, their story is hardly the stuff of ripping yarns: There is no antagonist to speak of, no drama, no outrageous personalities, no sex, no drugs and not even any rock ‘n’ roll in its swaggering sense. Even Mr. Jarnow acknowledges the profound lack of incident in their story: The lackluster sales of 2003’s wispy “Summer Sun” are “the first external jolt” to the band—nearly 20 years after they started.

What beefs up the book is found in its subtitle—”the rise of indie rock.” Hoboken was a microcosm of a national phenomenon, one of many scenes that sprang up all over the country: Raleigh, Minneapolis, Athens, Boston, Louisville, Cleveland and Austin, to name but a few. The key residents of Yo La Tengo’s village—the nonprofit radio station WFMU, Matador Records and the club Maxwell’s—had counterparts in all those towns, and a similar book could be written about any of those scenes.

The difference is that Yo La Tengo’s existence spans all the indie epochs, from the mid-80s to the present. The band was both a catalyst for and a beneficiary of indie’s evolution, and its very name embodies some of the defining characteristics: The phrase is what Richie Ashburn, an outfielder for the notoriously feckless 1962 Mets, learned, the hard way, to yell to his Spanish-speaking teammates to avoid collisions. (Translation: “I got it!”) The simultaneous self-deprecation and assertion of control perfectly encapsulates the early indie ethos.

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