While no seismic shift in direction, Popular Songs does find Yo La Tengo on peak form.
Stevie Chick 2009-08-24
Rock’n’roll might typically favour the glamorous Live Fast, Die Young myth, but there’s also a lot to be said for longevity and consistency.
Formed in 1984, Hoboken, New Jersey’s Yo La Tengo perfected their warmly-eclectic formula with their eighth LP, 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, a gleeful tangle of hushed folksong, kraut-rock drone, punk-rock din and classic pop songcraft, composing a wildly varied jumble that nevertheless made glorious sense when sequenced together. Their twelfth and newest release, Popular Songs doesn’t stray from that blueprint, but familiarity doesn’t dull Yo La Tengo’s charms.
While no seismic shift in direction, Popular Songs does find Yo La Tengo operating on peak form, both tightening the focus of their songwriting and giving freer rein to their more experimental leanings. Their Motown vamp, If It’s True, is the most enchanting pop song they’ve cut yet, with strings stolen from the Four Tops’ I Can’t Help Myself, and seductively sweet boy/girl vocals from drummer Georgia Hubley and husband/guitarist Ira Kaplan. Similarly, the harmony-drenched lilt of Georgia’s Avalon or Something Similar is the kind of sun-dappled jangle-pop a generation of 60s revivalists would have given their love-beads to have recorded.
While the album’s first half demonstrates the group’s gift with the three-minute pop format, it’s the more excursive second half – three songs in 36 minutes – that impresses more. Stretching out at length, Yo La Tengo never meander: the slow build of More Stars Than There Are in Heaven establishes its affecting, melancholy ache, while the unhurried tempo of The Fireside is crucial to the song’s hushed, contemplative mood. Fifteen-minute noise-improv closer And the Glitter is Gone, meanwhile, never loses its thread or your attention, thanks to a hypnotic motorik groove, and some deliciously skronky feedback proving that few can abuse their guitars as artfully as Ira Kaplan.
Wearing their impassioned knowledge of subterranean pop history on their sleeves, Yo La Tengo’s gift isn’t so much their teeming sea of influences, as the tenderness and invention they apply to them. As ever, they play ‘Yo La Tengo’ music, and on Popular Songs’s evidence, they’re only getting better at it.