Thursday, September 10, 2009

Album: Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

Popular Songs (Yo La Tengo)
Album: Popular Songs
Matador, 2009
Rating: ******** (8/10)

This album came out on Tuesday, when I reviewed two other albums. I meant to do two on Monday and one on Tuesday, but then Monday ended up being a holiday (I forgot) and so I'm a bit behind. Please forgive me.

Yo La Tengo have been playing for a quarter of a century now, and over two and half decades and dozen LP releases, YLT have established a contradictory pattern - never staying the same and never changing. On nearly every release, the band has pushed themselves to try new, potentially scary ideas - they never let themselves get too comfortable.

On the other hand, none of the ideas they introduce are truly radical. Think of Yo La Tengo as explorers, heading out in directions from their base camp - as opposed to those explorers who pick up their tents every night and settle down somewhere completely new. This approach isn't good or bad - on the one hand, YLT will probably never revolutionize indie music. On the other hand, they will never give in to the temptation to try arbitrary, artless crap just to keep an "edge."

Unlike the band's last release, 2007's I Am Not Afraid of You..., Popular Songs returns to the denser soundscapes of the band's best work (I Can Hear the Heart... and Painful). However, the band's new direction is immediately clear, when Ira Kaplan's opening lines are accompanied by a wealth of strings. Strings and organ are prominent on many tracks, while the band's more light-hearted quirkiness can only be found in a couple of songs. Kaplan's vocals even seem a bit jazzed up and the whole album is darker and more serious than the group's previous work.

Not shying away from a big un-"indie" sound, YLT here demand respect from a broader audience than ever. Moreover, the rich orchestration is always blended into YLT's typical murky, ambient guitars. The production is deep, dark and cozy - I don't know if the recording was analogue, but it certainly has that organic feel.

However, the release is sadly lacking in catchiness and rockingness. "Nothing to Hide" kicks serious ass, and "If It's True" keeps the tempo while Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubely pass the vocals deftly back and forth. However, most of the tracks are much more low-key. For example, the pairing of a sweet, introspective song sung by Kaplan (#7, "I'm On My Way") and one sung Hubley (#8, "When It's Dark") remind us that it's not only the band that's lasted twenty-five years so far, it's also Kaplan and Hubley's marriage, and they seem as deeply in love as ever.

The worst news about this album is that it not only follows a YLT tradition of ending albums with incohesive jams, it takes this problem to a new level by closing out with three tracks ranging from nearly ten minutes to nearly sixteen minutes long. Like "Spec Beebop" and "Night Falls of Hoboken," these songs are self-indulgent. They must have been fun to record, but they aren't fun to listen to - as foreground, they are too long and repetitive, as background too droning and predictable.

Anyone familiar with Yo La Tengo will be used to this kind of thing, though. And anyone familiar with Yo La Tengo can tell you it's worth plowing through the bullshit to get those perfect, slow-pop gems. If you're new to YLT, don't start here, but if you're already a fan just hungry for more, you're in luck.

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