Yo La Tengo
3.5 out of 5 stars
For a band as creatively daring as Yo La Tengo, it’s a bit surprising to see how little the group’s sound has changed from album to album. Despite recording relevant music for more than two decades (and in the fickle world of indie rock, that makes the group as much a revered dinosaur as, well, Dinosaur Jr.), Yo La Tengo’s career has been pretty much the same since 1986.
History lesson: Yo La Tengo released its debut Ride the Tiger in 1986. It was a critically acclaimed, Velvet Underground-influenced album that balanced hazy pop daydreams with grimy garage rock.
Now replace “Ride the Tiger” and “1986” in the preceding paragraph with any one of the band’s subsequent albums and its corresponding date. What you’ve got is a Mad Lib that accurately (if not dismissively) describes the band’s 20-plus-year career.
Popular Songs, Tengo’s latest, still sounds like the Velvet Underground, still has a mixed bag of sun and skuzz, and, in overwhelming likelihood, will garner near-universal critical praise.
Normally, such career stagnancy is a bad thing. But there’s a reason why Yo La Tengo has endured and impressed for so long. What makes Ira Kaplan and company so special is that they don’t need a career to reshape and revitalize their sound — all they need is an album.
Like most other Yo La Tengo albums, Popular Songs is so eclectic that the band seems to complete a full career arc in the span of 12 songs. The group slips naturally from the melodic proto-punk of “Nothing to Hide” to the cocky funk swagger of “Periodically Double or Triple” to the too-long, meandering epics of “The Fireside” and “And the Glitter Is Gone.” And all of this (mostly) goes over remarkably well, with the band connecting the dots of disparate genres with consistently solid grooves and an unfailing sense of melody.
Still, like just about all Yo La Tengo affairs, Popular Songs contains its quirks and surprises that make it distinguishable from the rest of the catalog. Most notably, the use of Phil Spector-like string arrangements lends the album a bright, pop gleam that was largely missing from 2006’s unfortunately titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. At least on the first nine tracks, this unusual brightness makes Yo La Tengo the most accessible they’ve been since “Autumn Sweater.”
The album’s three closers are all around or above the 10-minute mark. It’s a defiant move, and from a band as fiercely independent as Yo La Tengo, it’s not surprising. But that doesn’t necessarily make it work. The first of the three, “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” is a slow-burn that plods along, content in its own aimlessness. By the time the sparse and unmoving “The Fireside” ends and the feedback-laden “And the Glitter Is Gone” begins, patience has long been exhausted. And there are still 15 minutes left.
Doubtless, Yo La Tengo is deliberately testing its listeners with this epic row. But it’s an upsetting end to a largely admirable album that, for Yo La Tengo fans, will seem pleasantly familiar.