1986 was a landmark year for alternative music. The Smiths released their best album, The Queen Is Dead, Lifes Rich Pageant pushed R.E.M. out of college rock and onto the Billboard charts, and the Beastie Boys’ Licensed to Ill made rap music safe for Middle America. But something else happened in 1986 that was largely ignored outside of Hoboken, NJ but was just as important to the history of alternative music – Yo La Tengo released their debut album, Ride the Tiger.
You’ve never heard of this album? Don’t worry, most people haven’t, and those who have usually dismiss it – including YLT singer and guitarist Ira Kaplan.
“To me, [Ride the Tiger] sounds like a Dave Schramm album,” writes Kaplan in his liner notes of Matador’s reissue of Ride the Tiger, and he’s right.
In case you didn’t know, Dave Schramm was the guitar player Kaplan recruited for his new band, which included his drummer girlfriend (soon to be wife) Georgia Hubley and one-time bassist Mike Lewis. Kaplan and Hubley were already masters of covering other people’s songs from their nights playing at Hoboken’s legendary Maxwell’s, but now Kaplan wanted to record some of his own songs. Like all shy and inexperienced musicians, Kaplan wanted a capable guitar player to distract listeners from his mild singing.
And Schramm played his part well; the best thing about Ride the Tiger is Schramm’s jangly guitar that sounded in tune with every other guitar in the mid- 80s. It wasn’t unique, but it didn’t suck either. Whether it’s an upbeat rocker like “The Cone of Silence” or the slower “The Pain of Pain,” everything is consistent and straightforward. With the exception of “The Way Some People Die,” which sounds like the forefather of alt-country, Ride the Tiger is the cookie-cutter alternative album of 1986, which isn’t a bad thing. There are no surprises – no “Cherry Chapstick” freak-outs here –but at least Hubley could keep a beat and Kaplan could sing you a melody.
This is Schramm’s album, but these are Kaplan’s songs. A fan of both the Kinks and the Velvet Underground, Kaplan already had a clear idea of what he wanted his songs to sound like, and it’s impressive to hear how close he gets to nailing Lou Reed’s speak-singing (the short review of Ride the Tiger: Lou Reed singing Ray Davies songs).
There’s even a faithful cover of the Kinks’ “Big Sky” on the album, and you have to give credit to a young YLT for being able to turn Love’s “A House Is Not a Motel” into a The Kinks Are The Village Green Preservation Society B-side. Credit also goes to ex-Missions of Burma bassist and friend of the band Clint Conley for producing the album and playing bass on a few songs.
At its best, Ride the Tiger is an enjoyable document of a band’s humble beginnings. It’s not that this album was bad – in fact, it has actually aged well after almost 30 years – it’s just that YLT got so much better. Judging from this album, there was no way that anyone in 1986, including Kaplan, could have predicted that YLT would go on to make I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One or And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. This was a pleasant alternative album that sounded like every other pleasant alternative album in the mid-80s, and, unless you saw them live at Maxwell’s, you probably forgot about them and went back to your R.E.M. tapes.
Schramm left the band right after Ride the Tiger to form the Schramms (he would return as a guest for 1991’s Fakebook and this year’s Stuff Like That Here), and Kaplan and Hubley would spend the next 5 years fine-tuning their chops until bassist James McNew joined the now-classic lineup and Matador helped transform YLT into the influential rock group we all know and love. But even if YLT never achieved success, I’m sure Kaplan and Hubley would still have fun playing cover songs at Maxwell’s. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to sound like everyone else – it’s just great that YLT later decided to sound like no one else.