Yo La Tengo's Smile-Time Variety Hour
Across 20 years and 12 or so albums, Yo La Tengo's greatest, most acclaimed outing came with 1996's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. The album peddled a kind of musical pot-luck: switching up styles and hopping across genres with aplomb. Yo La Tengo weren't being mid-'90s, Beck-styled smarty-pantses about it, they were just the sound of the world's greatest pick-up band, the signed-to-Matador equivalents of dudes in a nameless garage-band, knocking out whatever they wish just for kicks.
Rather than giving fans more of what they were pining for, Yo La Tengo ditched such a scattershot style for their next two records; 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and 2003's Summer Sun offering surprisingly insular, intimate takes of half-whispered melancholy.
After the middling I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass in 2006, the pretty-darn-good Popular Songs is definite bounce-back; a set of songs not of the same stylistic feather, but delivered in the same spirit. By the same three people. The same three people who, 13 years ago, nailed this particular form of musical roulette.
This Sounds Like Rock and/or Roll
Popular Songs may not, as I Can Hear the Heart did, sound like Yo La Tengo hosting their own musical variety show, but it does get around. "The Fireside" finds YLT in incidental music mode, soundtracking out 12 minutes of barely-there ambience built on a handful of lonesome acoustic guitar chords and a barely-perceptible pulse of bass.
On the flipside, "Nothing to Hide" is three minutes of knocked-out indie-rock; Ira Kaplan's super-distorted guitar sound turning the dial back to the early '90s, even peeling out a screeching guitar-solo that J. Mascis would give his own personal thumbs up to.
Yet, for a band who first made their name via Kaplan's guitar pyrotechnics, Yo La Tengo spend Popular Songs abusing the manifold stylistic possibilities of keyboard instruments. On "Periodically Double or Triple," a slinky Hammond saunters underneath Kaplan's lyrical quips ("I've got time on my hands/that I can't wash off") in a fashion that tips its hat to '60s crews like the Spencer Davis Group and Booker T. and the MGs.
"All Your Secrets" spins an autumnal (Sweater?) melancholy from organ flutters, "By Twos" builds a solemn slowcore march out of drum-machine coughs and Visage-ish Cold War synths, and even six-minute opener "Here to Fall," all shoegaze guitars and splashes of string-section melodrama, finds a window for a stumbling, jazz-like organ solo.
That all, I'm sure, reads like mixed-bag of tricks, and, to a large degree, that's how Popular Songs plays. But, well, this is Yo La Tengo we're talking about. And they wouldn't have it any other way.
Record Label: Matador
Release Date: 8 September 2009