Yo La Tengo Painful

Technically, Yo La Tengo existed for almost a decade before Painful. But the Yo La Tengo we know and love begins here, with the record that turns 20 years old tomorrow. It was the first to feature the lineup that continues on today, matching married founding members Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley with most excellent third wheel James McNew. It was the first to be produced by Roger Moutenot, who would oversee every subsequent Yo La Tengo album up until this year’s Fade. And it was the first truly great collection of work from a group that would become one of the definitive bands of its genre. As Kaplan explained during a live interview I attended last month at Ohio University — and then demonstrated during a concert later that night — the band still draws heavily from Painful for its live sets, whereas the prior albums have been cast off to obscurity. And that makes sense. Painful was a gigantic step forward, the sound of a budding indie institution coming into its own. “Anyone who ever said they liked our older records more than Painful,” Kaplan said, “I just told them they’re wrong.”

Before Painful, Yo La Tengo’s records were all produced by Gene Holder of the dBs, a pal from the New York and New Jersey music scene Yo La Tengo came up in. Someone at Matador suggested the band try to work with a producer from outside their social circle, which they agreed with to a point. For security, they brought along another friend, Fred Brockman, to co-produce Painful alongside Moutenot. As it turned out, such self-protective measures weren’t necessary. Moutenot had a diverse track record (as Kaplan explained in that interview, “Roger, he had worked with Lou Reed and the Village People”), which suited Yo La Tengo’s penchant for plucking sounds from all over their seasoned record collections. He was willing to go along with stunts like sampling the air conditioner or recording a toilet flush and running it through various processors for “Big Day Coming,” and he helped to craft the reverb-drenched romantic dreamworld that has characterized every Yo La Tengo album since. The chemistry they happened upon here resulted in a fantastic record, but it also laid the groundwork for even greater triumphs down the road. As the Bracys put it in their typically incisive Countdown on YLT, “This is a landmark release that sets the table for a great band’s most impressive achievements.”

How many Yo La Tengo archetypes were crystallized here? “From A Motel 6″ and “Double Dare” are the kind of noise-pop burners that would be refined down the road with “Tom Courtenay” and “Sugarcube,” the sort of songs where Kaplan’s feedback-seared guitar heroics are wrangled into concise structures, their explosiveness harnessed as rocket fuel. He’s allowed to roam free on “I Heard You Looking”; it’s one of Yo La Tengo’s patented guitar pile-ons, a churning web of overdriven chords and solos morphing and crackling against the rhythm section’s steady backbeat. Hubley’s “Nowhere Near” and Kaplan’s “A Worrying Thing” are hushed ballads worthy of 2000′s near-perfect album-length sigh And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. “Sudden Organ” nurtures the percussive accessorizing that would become one of YLT’s tricks in a deep, deep bag of them. A wobbling twee cover of the Only Ones’ “The Whole Of The Law” set the stage for plenty of doe-eyed duets and killer covers to come. And with the quiet and loud versions of “Big Day Coming,” we get the dualistic interpretations that would become one of Yo La Tengo’s signature maneuvers.

Perhaps most importantly, Painful affirmed the template of Yo La Tengo album as record-nerd mosaic. There are so many peaks and valleys to be traversed, though you’d never call an album this cool and assured a “thrill ride.” On Painful, Yo La Tengo established that it would be defined by familiar voices and a consistent point of view, not any one style or structure. It’s not as dense or sprawling as some of the masterworks that followed, but it ended up becoming a sort of Constitution that governed one of rock music’s most magnificent discographies. It portended that, yes, a big day was coming for this humble trio from Hoboken — lots of big days, even. That would be reason enough to celebrate Painful even if it wasn’t such a marvelous accomplishment in and of itself.

So: What’s your favorite song on Painful? What memories does it dredge up for you, and are they in fact painful? Where does it stack up among Yo La Tengo’s impressive pile of LPs? Sound off below.

Comments (16)
  1. It’s a great album. I would buy it a drink to thank it for being so awesome, but that will have to wait until it turns 21 –– unless, that is, we go to Canada. Will you run away to Canada with me, Painful? We could gorge ourselves on poutine and be very happy together. Think about it.

  2. “Painful” is my favorite YLT album right now. I like almost everything they’ve done, including the newest one, but this album is perfect. I love it as background music, which I hope doesn’t sound demeaning. Just having it on while I’m doing basically anything makes doing that thing better.

    Seeing them live this summer was a highlight of the outdoor concert season. Georgia sang the vocal lead on the slow version of “Big Day Coming” and it was transcendent. There was a breeze, the sun was setting, you could walk right up to the stage. One of the best moments of the summer.

  3. This album is very much a nighttime listen for me. And it just might be their best.

    Also, these songs still sound AWESOME live.

  4. Incredible album. Anyone wanting to get into YLT should start here. “I Heard You Looking” is a sensational closer.

  5. Bought this on a trip to Minneapolis to see Lollapalooza “94. Still one of my favourite albums right down to the cover art.

  6. I remember when it was released it was one of the albums that were part of the deal Matador had with Atlantic Records. They had no idea how to market the album but it did get them on a big tour which killed. I’ve been a fan for life since. One of my favorite albums ever. A f*cking beautiful masterpiece.

  7. “Nowhere Near”, guys.How good was that song?

  8. An amazing album, and although I’d heard their previous albums (I think I started listening around the time of May I Sing with Me), this was the album that made me a fan for life.
    Interesting piece of trivia: when I saw them play live on the tour for Painful, I got Georgia to sign my CD cover. On the page with the Polaroid shot of the french fries, she added “Neil Young’s French fries”

  9. Let’s be undecided
    Let’s take our time

    Track 1 is one of my all time favorite songs, from one of my all time favorite albums, from one of my all time favorite bands. YLT probably made a couple more accomplished albums, but I’ll always love this one the most.

  10. Nowhere Near is just unbelievably gorgeous.

  11. Sudden Organ is the best song of all songs. I could listen to it every day (and probably have for the past decade) and not get tired of it. I love this band so much, but for me they never topped Painful. This album still puts a lump in my throat.

  12. Great album, but one small error. I believe James McNew joined prior to this album on “May I Sing With Me”. Don’t ask me why I know this.

  13. May I Sing With Me was definitely the first Yo La Tengo with James McNew on board as a full time member, and I’d be willing to debate that IT was the album where the Yo La Tengo we know and love truly got their wings. Every album of theirs has at least a couple of killer songs, and Fakebook is fantastic all the way through……But without a doubt, Painful changed everything. Such an amazing album.

  14. seems to grow in greatness by the year. “nowhere near” is a bliss-out. the journeys out and back again that Kaplan takes on guitar are incredible — noise jazz in the best sense. They recreate that and go further live — always an outstanding experience. The Electro-Pura tour, though, is one of the great live music experiences I’ve had.

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