Cover for Yo La Tengo's "Tom Courtenay" single.
Yo La Tengo was formed in 1984 in Hoboken, New Jersey by the husband-wife duo of Ira Kaplan (guitar, vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums, vocals). They were soon joined by Dave Schramm (lead guitar) and Dave Rick (bass). This lineup recorded the single “The River of Water” b/w “A House Is Not a Motel”, released in November 1985. Soon afterward, Rick left the band and was replaced by Mike Lewis (ex-DMZ and Lyres). The band signed with Coyote Records, who issued the band’s debut album, “Ride the Tiger” (1986). Both Schramm and Lewis soon left the band. Kaplan took over lead guitar duties, and Stephan Wichnewski was recruited to play bass. This lineup recorded “New Wave Hot Dogs” (1987), an album that sold poorly but represented a step forward for the band, with a harder-rocking sound than on their first album. “President Yo La Tengo” (1989) was a critical success, but sold poorly, and was their last album on Coyote Records. It was also Wichnewski’s last album with the band, as he quit soon afterward. Yo La Tengo continued as a duo for a time, but Kaplan and Hubley reunited with Schramm for the band’s fourth album, “Fakebook” (1990), released on Bar None Records. They also released the “This Is Yo La Tengo” EP (1991), after which James McNew joined the band on bass, forming the lineup that has continued to this day. The band switched to Alias Records for “May I Sing with Me” (1992). In 1993, Yo La Tengo signed with Matador Records and released “Painful” (1993), a creative shift for the band, with more atmospheric and ambient sounds. Their next album was “Electr-O-Pura” (1995); the first single from the album was “Tom Courtenay”. This is today’s featured single.
“Tom Courtenay” is one of the more infectious pop songs Yo La Tengo has written; the nostalgic lyrics, evoking Swinging London (“Julie Christie, the rumors are true/As the pages turn, my eyes are glued/To the movie star and his sordid life/Mr. X and his old-suffering wife”), punctuated by a catchy guitar melody. But the song never becomes a conventional pop tune, lacking a standard verse-chorus-verse structure (there is no chorus), and the lead vocals eventually become overtaken by the silly “ba-ba-ba” backing vocals. Eventually, the song dissolves into a mixture of feedback, distortion and noise, but it’s the catchy hooks and melody that helped turn “Tom Courtenay” into a minor hit.
The Digipak “Tom Courtenay” single also contains three non-album tracks: “Treading Water”, “Bad Politics”, and “My Heart’s Reflection (Take 3)”. “Treading Water” is an ethereal, moody almost-psychedelic piece, with Georgia Hubley contributing the lead vocals, with rather subdued drum-playing. “Bad Politics”, on the other hand, is a punk-sounding song in which the amps are cranked to eleven and the feedback and distortion seem to be maximized. “My Heart’s Reflection (Take 3)” is a restrained song, with Kaplan almost whispering his vocals over a soft guitar melody. None of these songs are as essential as “Tom Courteney”, but all are worth a listen.
The single (catalog #: OLE 139-2) was released on Matador Records.”Electr-O-Pura” was the first album on which songs were credited to all members, which would become the norm for future releases. The band would follow it up with “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One” (1997), one of Yo La Tengo’s most critically acclaimed albums. Next came “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out” (2000), an album of subdued art-pop songs.