Happy Birthday Electr-o-pura

May 02. 2020 | By Wayne Jessup
Photo by Michael Lavine

Time is a construct, as they say, and it’s scarcely believable that 25 years have passed, to this very day, since the release of Yo La Tengo’s Electr-o-pura. As part of the Matador Revisionist History reissue series, the label is looking both forwards and backwards, giving us a shiny new Electr-o-pura, and helping to celebrate it with one of their rising lights, Lucy Dacus.

At this point, marking 10 years as a band, they had their core unit in place with bassist James McNew, coming off of Painful, and settling into their first golden period, finding the path of both exquisite beauty and exquisite noise, sometimes in the same song, reveling in their path, truly becoming Yo La Tengo.

Winding through the gossamer delights of “Decora”, “Pablo & Andrea”, and “The Ballad of Red Buckets”, creating their own brand of baroque pop before fully hitting their stride in “(Straight Down To The) Bitter End”. In short, a band with the supreme confidence to bury a creation like “Tom Courtenay”, (a career song for anyone else), in the middle of the record and not miss a beat.

There’s a crucial moment in Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Boxer” at 1.47, where the natural route is to the refrain. In your mind you’re already singing ahead, and they just ride the solo, cruising. That’s closer “Blue Line Swinger”. For nine minutes. It remains in Yo La Tengo’s live set to this day.

Enter Lucy Dacus… according to Matador: “A while back, labelmate Lucy Dacus mentioned to us that ‘Electr-o-pura’ was released on her birthday.  We asked if she’d like to write a few words on the subject ; she’s done just that and recorded a cover of “Tom Courtenay” as well.”

I was born on May 2, 1995, the day that ‘Electr-o-pura’ came out.

Fourteen years later, I started high school and made a new friend who wore a leather jacket and boots, who expressed confident opinions about music that I had never heard. I devoured every recommendation they gave me in an effort to align my tastes. I wanted to be cool, or at least not uncool. I found out about The Stooges, Philip Glass, and Sonic Youth through my effort to win their approval. I loved it all, and my parents hated every new discovery. Cool was loud.

One day my friend brought me a stack of CDs, all Yo La Tengo, and told me to take them home, listen to them, burn them, and return them. I did what I was told. I liked those records from the start, and more with every listen. I’d lay in bed listening to one of their records, pause the song I was listening to when I got too tired, then push play upon waking.

I remember my confusion upon listening to Electr-o-pura for the first time. I referenced the tracklist on the back of the CD so I could learn titles, but the printed song durations didn’t match up to what I was hearing. I wondered if there was some manufacturing error and I wasn’t hearing the songs I was supposed to hear. “Flying Lesson (Hot Chicken #1)” is listed as lasting just over three minutes when it’s actually 6:42. “Blue Line Swinger” says it’s 3:15, but actually clocks in at 9:18. I know now from looking into it that Yo La Tengo intentionally misprinted the times, trying to combat short attention spans, hoping they would trick people into giving those long songs a chance. It tricked me, though I’m a sucker for long songs anyways. It’s interesting to think about how this move couldn’t be pulled today in a world of digitized music. And if people had short attention spans then, how short are they now? All to say, I liked that they were playful.

What kept me coming back to Yo La Tengo was their understanding of moods. I listened to bands that knew anger, bands that knew sadness, but I didn’t know of any other bands that could express a full life’s range of moods the way they can. From song to song, the music was anxious, celebratory, sorrowful, content, confused, etc. And even when they got loud or dissonant, it never felt hostile. The sounds could be harsh, even ugly, but they were joyful. Some songs could make me cry, but they were gentle, not malevolent. I was taking on someone else’s tastes, and in the process, discovering my own.

Tom Courtenay was the first Yo La Tengo song I learned on guitar. I didn’t know what it meant, but I knew who Julie Christie was and loved the line, “As the music swells somehow stronger from adversity / our hero finds his inner peace.” I didn’t know what the needle had to do with anything, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was like any good poem, leaving space for me, between images. Now, I think the song may be about obsession with media, equating the allure of the movies and movie stars to drug addiction. Who knows, that’s just my take.

Eventually when Matador asked to sign me, the fact that Yo La Tengo is on their roster was a major component of my decision. They’ve been putting out great albums every couple of years for over three decades, experimenting and exploring with what seems to be an uncompromised creativity. That is worth celebrating, especially now, when any opportunity for celebration is a blessing. Happy 25th birthday to Electr-o-pura, and thanks for the music, Yo La Tengo.
– Lucy Dacus

If you’ve been impacted by the band at any juncture of their long and adventurous career, you certainly have your own Yo La Tengo story to tell. Happy Birthday Lucy, and Happy Birthday Electr-o-pura.

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