Underappreciated Musician: Ira Kaplan

I have conquered blog neglect to bring you another installment of my sporadic series about musicians who don’t get the attention they deserve.

I got in to the band Yo La Tengo only within the past year or so, and I’m so glad I did. Their music is essentially indescribable, touching on so many different genres and styles – but without ever sounding pretentious about it. I think they simply just make music as honestly as possible and play the songs that come out of them with no shame or reservations. And isn’t that what art is truly all about?

Which brings me to their lead guitarist and primary singer (though all 3 fill vocal duties), Ira Kaplan.

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He doesn’t have the best voice, the highest technical guitar skill, or the most innovative songwriting talent on the planet, but the way he goes about singing, playing, and writing songs is absolutely unique.

One of the first Yo La Tengo songs I got into was “Sugarcube.” (this video is hilarious btw)

This catchy little tune with its mellow, almost sweet vocals over heavily distorted guitar sounded cool to me, but I wasn’t truly hooked until I heard that solo. It sounds like a train wreck, but it fits this song so perfectly, and is somehow incredibly pleasant to listen to. Kaplan has a way of making beautiful what would normally be discordant sounds. He is able to tap into some sort of nerve with me that only he can reach. If anyone else played a solo like this, I think it would just sound bad.

Little did I know upon hearing this solo, there were many more in the same style.

“Stockholm Syndrome” is a mid-tempo acoustic number which meanders along quite nicely, and then, out of the blue, Kaplan drops in a distorted, feedback and harmonic ridden solo that somehow doesn’t sound jarring or work against the song in the least. Check 1:23 in the video.

I could listen to that solo on repeat for hours.

Another great example is the nearly 11 minute track that they chose to open an album with, called “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” If you’ve got some time to just relax and throw the headphones on, give it a listen, why don’t ya?

“Deeper Into Movies” is in the same vein as “Sugarcube,” with its heavy distortion, its ugly/beautiful solo, and the vocals low in the mix. I love it.

And that’s barely even touching what this band can do stylistically. “Autumn Sweater,” “Today is the Day,” “Ohm,” “I’ll be Around,” “Our Way to Fall,” and “Big Day Coming” are some other favorites of mine.

I don’t love every song in their catalogue. In fact, there are some definite skippers for me. I realize what I said about it being art and all, but if something doesn’t appeal to you, you should still feel free to pass on it if you like. But when Yo La Tengo, or specifically Ira Kaplan, is able to find that perfect frequency, there’s not much else I’d rather listen to.

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