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Swing State Tour 

Rare visit from Yo La Tengo reminds us what's at stake -- politically, too

Pop quiz: to which band do the following liner notes refer?

----- are a highly original and refreshing group to listen to. They subscribe to the theory that rock and roll should by rights be made an art, and to this end they have experimented widely with technique and form...they have borrowed the principle that improvisation should comprise a large part of music and in consequence they have developed a style that is strictly and unmistakably theirs. Not one of their numbers, no matter how familiar the title, sounds anything like any version that has ever been done before. Tedious imitation is not a part of their repertory.

If you guessed Yo La Tengo, the master pop experimenters who play a rare Charlotte date Friday, you're right but still wrong. Sure, the description fits the Hoboken, NJ, Ambassadors of Rock like a glove. But these thoughts were originally scribbled for the self-titled 1961 debut of The Electras -- the band with that lanky bass player, John Kerry.

Yes, it's a measure of just how strange and politically charged these times we live in are when the career path of a little-known bassist in an even littler-known 60s band is the impetus behind Yo La Tengo's three-week long Swing State Tour, organized in part by the partisan voter registration group Music for America (www.musicforAmerica.org). But then Kerry and Yo La Tengo share more than just a nuanced view of music.

"The events of four years ago just seem so disturbing, the way the election was decided, how the administration handled what they interpreted as their mandate, it just seems there's less excuse now for people not to express an opinion than there was back then," says Ira Kaplan, singer and guitarist for Yo La Tengo. "I just wish people would put as much thinking into voting as they do their cell phone plan."

Awareness is the main reason they've undertaken this tour. But it's not as though Kaplan (vocals/guitar), his wife Georgia Hubley (drums) and bassist James McNew plan on adding Clash-like polemics to their repertoire. Kaplan says he's no good at the "sweeping terms" that partisan rock songs require -- just as these supposed pillars of the indie rock community disdain the broad generalizations involved with that title.

"Indie rock as a phrase, and one of the reasons I'm not very fond of it, is that it says whatever you want it to say," says Kaplan, a former rock scribe. "It can be a way of dismissing music, by just saying, "oh, that's just indie.' Or it can be a way of giving it credit that it doesn't deserve...I just don't think it has a lot of meaning. Post-rock, now there's a phrase with meaning..."

Kaplan and Co.'s sarcasm (try the "sells out" section @ yolatengo.com for more visceral examples) derives in part from Yo La Tengo's decade-old status as critical darlings. Insta-classifications and musical second guessing follow the band around like toilet paper stuck to their shoes, but their iconoclastic 20-year career path has shown more variety than any critic shorthand or marketing niche could possibly contain.

And it's not like they're listening to anyone else anyway.

"We don't write a song for "the listener,' we write a song for ourselves," Kaplan says, "and I think that's one of the reasons why they resonate with other people when they do, the way somebody else's story can resonate with you."

Yo La Tengo's resonating began in humble fashion in 1986 with Ride the Tiger's Velvet Underground-inspired pulsing jangle. The band then found their voice with 1987's New Wave Hot Dogs and 1989's President Yo La Tengo (both records packaged together now by Matador). In the stretch of records that followed they hit their stride, perfecting and contrasting dissonant feedback experiments with pop magnificence on 1992's May I Sing With Me?, 1993's Painful, 1995's Elec-tro-pura and 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (often mentioned as a career best to date). More recently, the band has explored gentle drone-scapes with 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and last year's Summer Sun.

In between there's been a film soundtrack, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science (2002), b-sides and instrumental collections (the excellent 1996 double disc, Genius + Love = Yo La Tengo), 6,989 singles (approximately) and a record chockfull of inspired covers, 1990's Fakebook. The latter was an early effort that could have been a serious misstep -- who puts out a record of 75 percent covers anyway? -- but instead helped cement the band's eclectic reputation and established them as Kings of the Cover Song.

The band began adding their unmistakable slant to songs by recognizable names like the Kinks, John Cale, Brian Wilson, Daniel Johnston (they were one of the first), the Flamin' Groovies, Sun Ra (the epic "Nuclear War"), Cat Stevens and a host of other artists as obscure as, well, The Electras, when, confronted with one dull college radio interview after another, Kaplan and Hubley brought along an acoustic and worked up covers to keep the dead air to a minimum.

"You'd get to these interviews and they'd ask, "what city are you going to next?'" remembers Kaplan. ""Wow, your listeners must be fascinated by this line of questioning,' and we'd say, "why don't we just play a song?' So we developed this alternate repertoire for that."

In fact, the band has become so proficient at choosing and making covers their own that weddings (probably not yours) have practically become a regular part of their itinerary, and waiting to hear which ones they emerge with live or on disc is a big part of the fun.

"We keep thinking maybe we should confound expectations and not do one, but then we can't stop ourselves," says Kaplan.

Proving once again that the only people who matter to Yo La Tengo are Yo La Tengo. How utterly selfish of them...who do they think they are? The Electras?

Yo La Tengo plays the Visulite Friday with David Kilgour, and comics Jon Benjamin and Jon Glaser. The doors open at 9pm and the show starts at 10pm; tickets are $12, $14 at the door.

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