Painful — never has a word seemed less apt to describe a record as that of Yo La Tengo‘s sixth album. As a general rule, “painful” has really never applied to anything Yo La Tengo has done in their three decades together. They’re alternately soothing and exhilarating, buoyant and blissful. They may sometimes be tense, sometimes melancholy, even a bit unsteady at times. But never painful.
Released in 1993, just about 10 years into Yo La Tengo’s tenure as a band—and a year after James McNew joined the group, making him the fifth bassist in what looked in hindsight like a Spinal Tap drummers progression—Painful marked the alignment of several notable events in the band’s history. It was the first to be released on Matador, for one, marking a business venture they never looked back on, thus making them one of the label’s most enduring bands. It was also their first recorded with producer Roger Mountenot, who—after working with artists ranging from Lou Reed to avant jazz/grindcore group Naked City—would come to be almost like a fourth member of the group, his credit appearing on most of the band’s records up to 2009’s Popular Songs. And lastly, it would come to be regarded as the record where the group’s sound had solidified, launching one of the great indie rock tenures of the ’90s and ’00s.
Painful, more than 20 years later, feels like a significant statement from the band. Though Ira Kaplan begins the record with the line, “let’s be undecided, let’s take our time,” the group had never sounded quite so assured or as accomplished. It’s not necessarily like night and day—during the ’80s, Yo La Tengo still displayed their share of songwriting chops and Velvet Underground aesthetics. Here, however, everything just clicks. Their ballads are prettier. Their noisy, quasi-shoegaze tracks have greater depth. And their melodies are simply sublime, as evident on “Double Dare,” “From a Motel 6,” both versions of “Big Day Coming,” and pretty much everything in between.
Extra Painful, an expanded version of the album, has been released by Matador to celebrate a significant anniversary, though not the one you might be thinking of. The album is 21 years old, which is an important birthday of sorts, but more than that, it’s here to celebrate the trio’s 30 years together as a band. That’s impressive, to say the least, and even more impressive that they made it 21 years and counting with no lineup changes. As such, it features an entire second disc of bonuses, which range from the acoustic take of “From a Motel 6” that’s almost like an entirely different song, to the noisy punk-leaning demo “Tunnel Vision.” There’s a fun psych-rock number called “Smart Window,” recorded during the Painful sessions that was never released, as well as the “Shaker” single and its B-side, which are essential listening if just a slight notch below the album itself.
Despite the passing of time, and the remarkable realization that Yo La Tengo have been playing music together for as long as they have, their music on Painful, and no doubt many of the records that came after, feels ageless. Hearing a track like “Sudden Organ” doesn’t necessarily transplant you to 1993 — though it certainly could, with the right combination of personal history and “I was there” nostalgia. It feels contemporary, thanks in large part to how well-constructed it and the other 10 tracks on Painful are. There would soon be further growth ahead of them, and more ground to cover in the coming decades, but Painful stands as Yo La Tengo’s first great album, delivered in a package that’s just this side of perfection.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.