FILTERING ROCK HISTORY Yo La Tengo

On
their amazing new album, the indie-rock avatars redefine the term “originality”
by thumbing their noses at it.

 

BY JOHN SCHACHT

 

Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan has always bristled at the “indie
rock” tag, and if you’ve followed the band over its two-decade-plus tenure you
know it’s not just because of that label’s specious ambiguity (though that’ll
certainly get his eyeballs rolling). If one (alleged) tenet of indie rock is
its ironic stance toward the rock canon, there’s little of that in the trio’s
approach to the pop-rock songbook, either in their cover song choices or the
array of familiar styles they’ve put their imprint on.

 

Kaplan and band mates Georgia Hubley (drums) and James McNew
(bass) don’t put much stock in vigilant originality either, another supposed
indie rock article of faith. This doesn’t mean Kaplan and co. presume to be
beyond irony’s long reach (note their “Sugarcube”/School of Rock video) or
don’t value invention – there’s also a reason they dubbed their excellent new
record Popular Songs, and there’s
always unexpected twists and turns on Yo La Tengo records. But at this point in
their career – or at their age, if you like – they know they’re not reinventing
wheels, just putting fresh ones on the car every couple of years. As Kaplan
recently told The New York Times, “I
don’t put a gigantic premium on originality. I don’t think there’s anything
wrong with music reminding you of something else. That doesn’t disqualify it
from being good.” As for that title? Well, we’re venturing into
Foucault’s funhouse mirror here, but by the law of double negatives, they’ve
neutered irony by invoking it so obviously. Or, maybe it’s just that the styles
the band references are popular with them,
and that’s enough to keep Yo La Tengo – and by extension, us – interested.
(Discuss.)

 

One thing we can say with certainty about Popular Songs is
that these dozen tracks find a band filtering rock history through its own
history, adding new elements they’ve not used before to songs that almost
always recall other Yo La Tengo songs. In that context, the addition of a few
new accents keeps things fresh for everybody without invoking cumbersome notions
of wheel reinvention. “Nothing to Hide,” for instance, may be one of those
ultra-catchy “Cherry Chapstick”/”Sugarcube” rockers that embeds in your
consciousness for years (and whose chorus — “We’ve all got something to hide”
— might prove embarrassing sung aloud in line at the supermarket), but it adds
a pulsing keyboard part aggressive enough to match one of Kaplan’s trademark
feedback frenzies. Then there’s the newly minted (for YLT) string trio that
extends the band’s already extended sonic palette. Used judiciously, the
strings mix with organ washes for a nostalgic Hitsville USA vibe on the summery
“If It’s True” (this record’s “Beanbag Chair”), and they add an Urban Hymns-like swagger to the
echo-chamber of keyboard noise on disc-opener “Here To Fall,” whose mature look
at love bookends Kaplan’s ode to young love from 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out…, “Our Way to Fall.” 

 

That record, incidentally, has its dreamy paces recalled in
the delicate “By Two’s” — whose quiet synth textures and subdued beats provide
the lattice-work for Hubley’s near-whisper — and the patient acoustic drone
and space-noise of the 11-minute-plus “Fireside.” McNew’s “I’m On My Way” is
another of those sneaky soft-rock hooks that he’s been springing on us since
“Stockholm Syndrome,” and placed back-to-back with Hubley’s “When It’s Dark”
(note the French horn, acoustic guitar solo and Fakebook-like harmonies) together they suggest those late-night
infomercials hosted by the Air Supply dudes – except with better melodies and
less-cheesy narratives. “Avalon or Somewhere Very Similar,” featuring Kaplan
and Hubley in harmonious falsetto mode, is an updated Fakebook-like homage to summer pop, and the couple’s vocal
interplay also highlights “All Your Secrets” (nobody works a simple background
“doo-doo-doo-doo” more effectively). 
Then there’s the groovy curveball “Periodically Double or Triple,” a
Booker T-meets-Beck mash-up with a narrative that could be an update on Mr. Hansen’s
slacker anthem “Loser.” “Never read Proust, seems a bit too long/Never used a
hammer without using it wrong,” Kaplan sings before transposing one of his
melody-and-skronk guitar solos to organ on the bridge, and channeling Steve
Nieve through Jimmy Smith in the process.

 

Finally, there are the three songs that end the record and
take up just slightly less time (37 minutes) than the nine tracks that precede
it. In less assured hands, ending an album with three consecutive marathons
would probably sink whatever came before. But these are, instead, three of the
best stretch-outs in the band’s extensive stretch-outs catalog, and each
explores different epic territory: The droning bass-and-guitar riff of “More
Stars Than There Are in Heaven” is leavened with e-bow curlicues and a wistful
“we’ll walk hand in hand” mantra; “Fireside” creates atmosphere initially with
acoustic guitar (not unlike the opening to the Stones’ “Moonlight Mile”) and a
gentle haze of background noise, slowly evolving – via McNew’s insistent bass
figure, daubs of electric guitar and, seven minutes in, a few rueful lyrics
from Kaplan — into something more deliberate and noir-ish that would fit
comfortably in the Friends of Dean Martinez songbook; and, finally, 16 minutes
long and as explosive as a supernova, “And the Glitter is Gone” marries a
melodic “Third Stone From the Sun” mega-riff with Kaplan’s controlled feedback
chaos and Hubley’s impressive “Tomorrow Never Knows” raga-beats and cymbal
explosions, creating one of the band’s tightest and most hypnotic jams. By the
time that spell ends, Kaplan’s proven that even if he didn’t invent
melody-and-dissonance solos, he’s certainly mastered the breaking-wild-horses
nature of them.

 

This triptych of epics strains the popular songs idea to its
breaking point – unless, of course, you’re a Yo La Tengo fan, in which case
they should prove quite popular with you. The rest should be popular with
almost everybody, since that’s their heritage.

 

And if you find something ironic
about that, that’s your issue, not theirs.

 

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