clap clap blog: we have moved

Monday, December 15, 2003
Listening to Yo La Tengo's "You Can Have It All" off And Then Nothing... while finishing up the 7 hours of so of billing I did today, and it's impressing me in a way it hasn't before, maybe because I'm listening to it out loud--and singing along--instead of running it through headphones.

What most impresses me about it is the restraint. I used to regard it as a nice little trifle, a pretty, inconsequential thing, background noise, makeout music. Nothing like the kind of balls-to-the-wall pop songs I write about most of the time here. But in listening to it this time, I heard what it could be--heard the pop song behind it somewhere, and I appreciated it a lot more. But that's not something I'm used to looking for in music.

Not so with visual art. There's the theory there that high-art primitivism or reductionism is only permissible once you know how to do perspective, anatomy, shading, light, all those trompe le monde things. In other words, it's only OK to look sloppy once you could actually do it perfect, and this acknowledgement of the perfect lies hidden at the back of your studied mistakes.

This rarely holds true, though, for pop music, where the glorious innocence in a lot of indie music results not from conscious choice but from lack of experience, knowledge, technical skill, or technological resources. It's not that Malkmus et al could have made Slanted & Enchanted in a 48-track studio with pristine Mesa/Boogie amplifiers and a session drummer but didn't; it's not that Liz Phair could have made Exile with crisp digital production and soaring vocal lines but chose not to; it's not that John Darnielle could have made All Hail West Texas with a full band and, uh, something besides a boombox but chose the lo-fi route instead. What makes these musicians distinct is the way they embraced the limitations that had been forced on them, but all of them also chose to make records in this "higher" style when given the chance. This is perhaps a good thing, a sign of pop music's energy and youth compared to the visual arts' self-absorption and decrepitude, but it also seems to cause some problems, causing both lo-fi and hi-fi to fall short of their true potential.

But this is not true for "You Can Have It All": it is not a pop song compromised by circumstance. You know this just from Yo La Tengo's bio, with their status as music geeks and their mastery of the pop cover song unquestioned. There's no way to think these guys haven't done their homework, and their technical skill and experience is in evidence over the course of their 15-year, 8-LP, multi-single/EP career up to this point. Plus they're recording at a tricked-out Nashville studio with an expert producer, and the overall sound of the album is hardly lo-fi, excepting a few of the drum machine beats and organ sounds. So the potential's there. And if you have any further doubt that Yo La Tengo knows how to write a great pop song, you need only skip to the next track, "Tears Are In Your Eyes," for my money the most beautiful song ever recorded.

The biggest clue to the pop restraint of this track, I think, is the vocal line in the chorus. The melody there is certainly catchy, but it's more the rhythm. The line is very simple, two notes descending a step to a resolved third that mirrors the chord progression. However, when listening to it out loud and singing along I found myself adding a higher vocal harmony (wshew, good thing Georgia's an alto) that hit one note, went a step higher, and then returned to the original note, and when coupled with her line, this sounded perfect, like it should have been in the song all along.[1] With the harmony it sounds like a great pop chorus, really, really killer. But then without Georgia's vocal, the harmony line starts to sound like the lead. Which means that, I think, she was singing the harmony line all along.

And that's hard to do; it takes restraint. You hear the restraint in the arrangement, where it stays on the same two chords ad infinitum until the chorus, where it throws in, well, a third. You can hear it, too, in the way the perfect string arrangement doesn't come in until halfway through the song. But mostly, I think you can hear it, again, in the vocals. It's no accident that the whole song is built around a never-changing vocal loop that all the chords and lines work with, but when everything starts to get blended together at the end, there's really a near-infinity of other lines you could put on top of there. "You Could Have It All" as arranged by Carl Newman could be the same song but sound very, very different. There are a whole lot of hooks just waiting to be sung there, three-part harmonies in cascading double-time, harmonies above the harmonies, more vocals used as percussion. Could be done. But YLT goes for restraint.

Does this make it a better song? The band thinks so; I probably don't, in my heart of hearts, no matter how much I do like the song.[2] Restraint is admirable, but not necessarily rewarding. Still, the track is a great example of what can result when the anti-pop move is one choice among many instead of a nervous knee-jerk reaction.

[1] And trust me, with my harmony skill, it has to be obvious.
[2] Of course, one of the wonderful things about pop music is that Carl Newman, or Billy Corgan, or me can all rearrange the damn thing as we hear it. If you want it to sound like a full pop song, go arrange it that way!