When a band has been around for 24 years like Yo La Tengo has, it’s hard to find something new to say about them. Anything remotely clever I can come up with has already been said before (and probably, better phrased than I can ever imagine). Like their indie elder-statesmen peers Sonic Youth, Yo La Tengo has been steadily cranking out a solid stream of work, fine-tuning and perfecting their sound, becoming one of the most reliable bands out there. Each Yo La Tengo album is a lovingly crafted mix tape of varied influences, and listening to them is like having a pleasant afternoon with an old friend.
Yo La Tengo’s twelfth album, Popular Songs isn’t a massive game-changer; they’re not radically changing their sound but it doesn’t matter. Yo La Tengo is past the point where reinventing oneself is part of the game, and what results is just a really fucking good album. Album opener “Here To Fall” is amazingly dramatic, sounding like Ira Kaplan attended the Air School of Kick Ass Electric Piano Riffs. It’s menacing (see lyrics: “I know you’re worried, I’m worried too“), ear catching and even a little sexy and it shows real spark – these three aren’t resting on their laurels.
Earlier, I compared Yo La Tengo’s albums to a mix tape and that descriptor is perfectly apt concerning their track sequencing. Following the cinematic strings of “Here To Fall” is the dreamy, almost psychedelic “Avalon or Someone Very Similar.” Mining the Mamas and the Papas, the song is breezy where “Here To Fall” was imposing. “By Twos” stands counter to both songs, adapting the droning keyboards and Georgia Hubley’s familiar cool and hazy vocals. These varied songs get to heart of what makes listening to a Yo La Tengo album so fun and rewarding – it’s like a treasure hunt of influences and references to older songs.
As a longtime Yo La Tengo fan, the mix tape style has never fazed me and I would say it’s a big reason as to why I’ve always loved them. Anyone who has had the pleasure of listening to their annual WFMU fundraiser knows the band’s vast arsenal of songs (not just their own!) in their repertoire. Can they do ’60s fuzz pop? Sure can! Check out “Nothing To Hide.” Vaguely funk-inspired ditties? Try “Periodically Triple or Double.” Sweet AM radio duets? The adorable “If It’s True” fits the bill. The Yo La Tengo-ian epic track? We’ve got three here: the noisy “And the Glitter Is Gone,” minimal “The Fireside” and the gorgeous “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven.” With each different style, there’s no sense that they band is simply trying on costumes. Rather each track is played with such sincerity and with a genuine love of the style they play that there’s no pretense.
It seems fitting that Yo La Tengo would choose the work of conceptual artist, Dario Robleto for their album art. Robleto’s work relies heavily on the vocabulary of music, referencing the past while mixing in newer influences – often referred to as artistic mix tapes. His carefully crafted and lovingly detailed works are a perfect visual representation of Yo La Tengo’s music. The mixing of styles and references are done with such care that as with both Yo La Tengo and Robleto, you can immediately see that at the end of the day, these guys are true music fans.
Sonic Youth – The Eternal
The Sea and Cake – One Bedroom
Pavement – Terror Twilight
Video: “Here to Fall”