Yo La Tengo made a major creative leap forward with 1992's May I Sing with Me, where their yin-and-yang mix of quiet and loud finally began to work as well as it was meant to, but 1993's Painful was where they truly hit their stride, their first album to confirm they were one of the best independent bands extant. Ira Kaplan's buzzy guitar freakouts had made it to vinyl before, but Painful gave them better context, with songs that were well suited to his noisy style. "Sudden Organ" introduced the Ace-Tone keyboard that would become an important voice in their music, while the droney textures of "Big Day Coming," "The Whole of the Law," and "Superstar-Watcher" were the cornerstones of a key part of the YLT aesthetic over the next two decades. While Georgia Hubley's drumming had been capable enough on YLT's early sides, she played with greater confidence on Painful and revealed a more adventurous sense of rhythm, and her vocals sounded less shy and more sweetly certain. And bassist James McNew had fully integrated himself into the band after making his debut on May I Sing with Me, and if his style was far from flashy, it was an ideal complement to the idiosyncratic but effective sounds Kaplan and Hubley brought to the table. And Yo La Tengo were writing as well as they were playing on Painful, and "From a Motel 6," "I Heard You Looking," "Nowhere Near," and "Big Day Coming" remain key numbers in the band's songbook. Before Painful, Yo La Tengo were a fine band that hadn't quite mastered the recording studio; with this album, they matured into one of indie rock's most consistently satisfying acts, and this was the first in a run of excellent albums that would stretch into the 21st century.
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AllMusic Review by Mark Deming