Release Date: Sep 8, 2009
Record label: Matador
Genre(s): Indie, Rock
Yo La Tengo have hit that stage of band life - 25 years in for husband-and-wife Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, 17 for bassist James McNew - when they can do pretty much anything, however preposterous, and get away with it. They've already released one album this year, a blistering collection of garage covers recorded under the name Condo Fucks; now Popular Songs presents an iPod shuffle of styles and sounds at once idiosyncratic and surprising. They swagger in with Here to Fall, a grandiose display of orchestral metal to which Kaplan's soft voice is comically unsuited, end with 15 minutes of hypnotic Krautrock sizzling with white noise, and in between sidle from honeyed Motown pop (If It's True) to strutting, tongue-in-cheek funk (Periodically Double or Triple).
Time flies when you’re having fun, or so it it is said. And Yo La Tengo would certainly appear to be having fun at the moment. It feels like hardly any time since their last album, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, was released; perhaps testament to the amount of great music released in the last few years, but it’s good to have them back.
Whether or not Yo La Tengo are being tongue in cheek with the title of their 14th album, Popular Songs does find Hoboken's finest embracing pop song structures with a renewed degree of enthusiasm -- this isn't quite the Yo La Tengo "loaded with hits" album, but for a band that's shown an increasing willingness to explore the outer limits of its music in the studio, Popular Songs features nine tunes you can hum along with and sometimes even dance to. Those who got high marks in math will notice that Popular Songs has 12 selections, and as befits a band that covered George McCrae's "You Can Have It All," on the second half of this set YLT take the opportunity to stretch out and invite the spirit for a while -- the total time of the first nine tracks on Popular Songs is roughly the same as the last three, which should tell you something about the album's dual nature. "Periodically Double or Triple" and "If It's True" in the first half are two of the most user-friendly songs this band has recorded in quite some time, the former a playfully funky R&B number with a killer bassline and the latter a slice of sweet uptown soul complete with a Hammond B-3 and a polished string section, while "I'm on My Way" and "All Your Secrets" are low-key but beautifully crafted examples of smart pop for grownups that won't insult your intelligence or your imagination.
Let’s go back to the concept of the popular song. Music historians believe that Irving Berlin, with his widely popular hit Alexander’s Ragtime Band, was one of the precursors to this ambiguous genre. Even if Berlin’s composition is, in structure, composed of other musical themes – it was classified between novelty piano and stride piano – its musical leanings were pushing for other styles, such as big band and jazz.
Oh demon reliability! Oh demon longevity! These twin curses can plague any decades-old band in an age when careers are measured in months. Yo La Tengo can count themselves in the rare company of this group, elder statespeople operating in a genre where they're influence-grandparents. And alongside peers Sonic Youth and the Flaming Lips, YLT have to operate under the bane of their own consistency at a time when the new and a compelling narrative are over-celebrated.
Traffic snaked along Interstate 40 as an almost-biblical summer downpour battered my windshield. My car hydroplaned more than once as water collected on the road. The hypnotic, chaotic “And the Glitter Is Gone”, the coda to Popular Songs, gave perfect accompaniment to the fury outside. The insistent bass from James McNew and the drum work from Georgia Hubley were the fuzzy lines on the road—inspiration to navigate true even when I couldn’t see a car length ahead of me.
Maybe a little too eclecticThree years ago, Yo La Tengo declared I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. Earlier this year, the band unleashed a raucously excellent collection of garage-rock covers under the moniker Condo Fucks. It makes sense, then, that much of Popular Songs is rather subdued. Nuggets like the sassy, organ-led “Periodically Double or Triple” and “Here to Fall”—with its Gainsbourgian string swell—are some of YLT’s finest moments.
We have a certain high-tolerance for the diminishing returns of our favorite bands as they get older. It’s why Bob Dylan’s last four albums -- which I think are adequate at best -- are heralded like masterpieces now. We expect bad albums when artists get older, and they promise to play the hits when we see them on the tour in support of their new albums.
Much to the excitement and delight of music fans around the world, Yo La Tengo has deftly defied standards with its own brand of rock and roll. Abundant, in terms of song titles, song lengths and an overwhelming amount of skill, the group never sacrificed quality for quantity. And you can’t find anyone that doesn’t have a strong respect for the way this trio of musicians handle themselves and the music they deliver.