What else can be said about Yo La Tengo that hasn’t been documented in the last three decades? This year they celebrate 29 years as a band – 29 years of their name being misspelled, live impromptu cover-song radio performances, wedding band appearances, alternate personalities (see “Condo Fucks“), and (thousands of) one-of-a-kind performances including improvised film soundtracking and recitations of Seinfeld monologues in front of live audiences. Like Seinfeld, they’ve earned universal acclaim to the point where the rare hater is no doubt accustomed to hearing, “wait, how can you NOT LIKE Yo La Tengo?!” So my point is, they’re still a big deal.
Fade, their 13th studio album, gels with the last two Yo La Tengo albums in that it’s a mixture of the following:
1) Mellow, whispered ballads
2) Bouncy 1960s throwback pop songs
3) Repetition-heavy up-tempo rockers (with the occasional guitar feedbacking freakout)
The freak-outs on Fade remain somewhat tame, especially when the band substitutes distorted guitars or basses for more unique timbres like symphonic strings or trombones. Overall, the album’s a quieter affair.
A flopping electronic rhythm introduces the maraca-shakin’ sing-along opener, “Ohm.” The song’s laid-back southern motorik vibe makes for the most straightforward track on the album, save for “Paddle Forward” — a soon-to-be-classic live rocker if the band plays its cards right. Both songs carry Kiwi pop-like vibes that would be exciting if not for the potential of following a pattern of strong openers followed by more lackluster tracks, as was the case on 2009’s Popular Songs.
No worries, as this album’s second half, filled with hushed Ira Kaplan/Georgia Hubley ballads, erases the memory of Popular Songs‘ mediocre second half for one predominant reason: the stellar songwriting. The Yo La Tengo folks sound as personal and poignant as ever, while continuing to stay engaged with the material. The lyrics remain obscure yet romantic as always. “When I stare into space, I’m looking for you, and I can see you,” Ira muses over a pulsating bass groove on “I’ll Be Around.” The dark charmer “Cornelia and Jane” starts with Georgia’s simplistic lyrics, “I hear them whispering, they analyze, but nobody knows what’s lost in your eyes. Sending the message that doesn’t get to you, how can we care for you?” We never learn who “you” is, but the song grasps goosebump-worthy attention from the listener partly from Georgia’s vocals, but also thanks to each member being a master of simplicity. Minute details like Ira’s warm guitar tone, or the ride cymbal’s subtle entrance, or the reverb-heavy horn elevates the song, and the band achieves maybe their strongest ballad since “Saturday” from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Speaking of “Saturday,” is it me, or did they sample the exact drum loop from that song on the excellent “Two Trains?” Not that I’m complaining…
Studio maestro John McEntire provides an overall warmth to the recordings, while droning keyboards, compressed guitar feedback, and strings rumble in the background — adding an extra layer to the already richly textured songs. It’s hard to say, immediately, how Fade ranks among the many other excellent albums in the band’s extensive catalog. For now, it’s a fresh set of songs and a notable reminder that Yo La Tengo remains more relevant than ever.