As we ascend the PATH station escalator leading to a strange and unfamiliar land, a friendly stranger stands waiting at the summit, a sort of greeter-wrangler who with one glance knows precisely what we seek. He points us in the direction of the Yo La Tengo concert. This is his job, apparently, and he knows who to look for. Specifically, “confused white people.” He smiles. We smile. Welcome to Jersey City.
It’s a late-September Friday night, the first real hint of impending winter’s menacing chill in the air, and the beloved Hoboken trio has lured us to the Landmark Loew’s Jersey Theatre, about a half-hour outside the Manhattan-Brooklyn nexus but far enough to feel exotic and otherworldly, hordes of dazed city slickers nearly getting run down at deceptively peaceful crosswalks while gawking at a beat-to-shit donut shop. Our venue this evening is an opulent, ornate, rarely open movie theater with immaculate sound and plush, comfy seats, which is a good thing, ’cause Yo La’s fixin’ to do some noodlin’. They open with “Sugarcube,” probably the catchiest, sweetest, most concise moment of their 20-year career, but launch immediately thereafter into a 15-minute bass-heavy jam with guitar-wrasslin’ theatrics aplenty, bearing the awkward title “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” and borne of the band’s awkwardly titled new album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. We recline in our comfy seats, steeled for The Jam.
In theory, Yo La Tengo prove that defiant indie rockers can age gracefully, find true love, migrate out to the ‘burbs and/or Hoboken, and still unleash 90 minutes’ worth of glorious noise on weekends. They lack the too-cool mystique of, say, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore, but when Bowery Ballroom patrons at last month’s Tortoise show spotted YLT drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan lurking near the exit doors, cute and cuddly and newlywed-looking nearly 20 years later, you instinctively wanted to buy them beers or feed them carrots or something. After Tortoise—talk about some noodlin’—capped off their encore and fled the stage, we all cheered for what seemed like 10 minutes, hoping to inspire another noodley callback, before . . . the house lights came on. Show over. Boooooooo. Go back to Chicago, you chumps. “Aww, you guys are better anyway,” someone cheerily informed Georgia and Ira as we filed out. They smiled. We smiled.
OK, welcome back to Jersey City, where we’ll all gladly agree with that guy, especially when Georgia sings. YLT live and die by Ira’s guitar-thrashing amp abusers, whether tamed into concise powerpop “hits” like “Sugarcube” and “Tom Courtenay” or funneled into endless autumn jams like those bookending I Will Beat Your Ass. His wobbly, wistful voice holds up fine, but he abandons it ASAP when it’s time to freak out—he spins around, faces Georgia, and pantomimes epileptic pro-wrestling moves, as though he’s still trying to impress her. She smiles politely. The Jersey City highlight, easily, came when she took the lead for a while, sitting at the piano and cooing through “I Feel Like Going Home,” a blood-freezing ballad marred a bit on record by nosy strings, but here unadorned, a nearly whispered prayer nearly swallowed by a cavernous theater. The outro is a long, slow guitar figure wrapped in two alternating piano notes—left, right, left, right—as if someone was trudging home. Like the wind outside, it evoked winter but ditched the menace. She could’ve played it on a loop for an hour and a half.
Of course, like the guitar freakouts, a little Georgia goes a long way too—most people find 2000’s shuffle-ballad-heavy And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out a bit wan and sleepy. (Would’ve killed to hear “Tears Are in Your Eyes,” though.) Eclecticism bordering on pure randomness is a YLT staple—on the new one, “Goodkind” the guitar assault and “Going Home” the piano lullaby are separated by “Beanbag Chair,” a jaunty, poppy sing-along everyone would hate if Ben Folds had written it. I Will Beat Your Ass also has an equally goofy falsetto soul moment (“Mr. Tough”), a goofy rockabilly riposte (“Watch Out for Me Ronnie”), a trippy organ-and-bongos séance with Georgia chanting in shell-shocked deadpan (“The Room Got Heavy”), and a rainstorm-addled ambient drone (“Daphnia”) that cuts the record neatly in half. It’s an excellent slog, but still a slog sometimes, quality overwhelmed by its own quantity. Yo La’s intent on ramming it down your throats regardless—friends who saw them play new-stuff-heavy sets on the summer festival circuit were oddly enraged. This band demands cushy-theater-seat levels of patience and commitment.
All that super-eclecticism can seem a bit forced at times—covers of the Kinks! And the Stones! And Sun Ra! And Beat Happening! But it’s a trip to watch third member James McNew, beefed up like a record-store clerk trying out for offensive tackle at Rutgers, sheepishly note that his parents are in the audience and then barrel through a wildly discordant “Hot Rocks,” which I guess is supposed to be funny, and I know for a fact was. The underlying message throughout the night was another Inside-Out tune they sadly didn’t play: “You Can Have It All.” The towering record collection, the guitar god theatrics, the quiet piano prayers, and a crowd willing to nervously commute for the privilege of trying and probably failing to absorb it all. A cathedral of uneasy comfort for confused white people. “Elder statesman” is a terrible thing to call anyone. But Yo La’s successes both quiet and blaringly loud at least suggest there’s a future—not financial, but maybe emotional—in the Magnet-subscribing indie-jangle thing. You might succeed in taking that lifestyle with you, even when you finally feel like going home.