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. Ira Kaplan’s squealing guitar was the rain and wind, of course, but as long as I stayed between the lines in this aural and visual assault, everything would be OK. The car in front of me drove with its emergency flashers on, so when they abruptly changed lanes (as they often did) it was completely without warning. (Flashers are for parking, not driving, people). Both harrowing and oddly comforting, “And the Glitter Is Gone” eventually guided me safely home. Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs: Recommended for all weather types, day or night.
At least since 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Yo La Tengo has deftly mixed musical styles and moods often within the same album. Their latest album is no exception, coming across like the spiritual cousin to 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Like that album, Popular Songs mixes quiet, late-night tracks with louder, noisy, ones. Overall, the album is a little quieter and a little more ethereal than 2006’s I’m Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and almost as good.
The opener “Here to Fall” launches the action on sci-fi movie keyboards and soaring violins. “I know you’re worried / I’m worried, too”, sings Kaplan. But then the reassurance comes: “But if you’re ready / I’m here to fall with you.” Clearly, if we’re all going down, Yo La Tengo will be there right along side us to croak in solidarity with us. Just one possible interpretation, I know, but nevertheless, I appreciate that kind of imagined loyalty from my rock heroes. After all, Yo La Tengo has earned respect and admiration through consistency and willful eclecticism, so they seem like the band to deliver on such a promise. Across the 12 tracks of their latest, their remarkable consistency is more reassuring than ever.
The band’s comfort with different styles shows throughout Popular Songs as the fearless genre experiments ping-pong from track to track. The midnight drone of the Hubley-sung “By Two’s” leads into the sunny “Nothing to Hide”, a number highlighted by a garage band keyboard and an economical, ripping solo from Kaplan. Hubley sings lead on a number of tracks here, and her voice suits late-night melancholy like few others. The repetition of the organ notes forms the buzzing heart of “By Two’s”, and Hubley’s vocals wrap the track in her unique sense of detachment. It’s rare to find a singing drummer that sounds as good with an interesting melody as she does with the sticks, but Hubley is the exception.
There are a few missteps on Popular Songs, but not many. “Periodically Triple or Double” comes off a bit too silly and tossed-off, but clever lyrics like, “I’ve got time on my hands / That I can’t wash off” and punctuation with organ stabs almost saves it. The video clip (included below) is not for those appalled by close-ups of various (possibly famous) mouths chewing fruit and dribbling juice everywhere. It’s both mildly amusing and mildly revolting. But it’s fun.
Yo La Tengo even get all Motown-lite on us. The beginning of “If It’s True” made me think the next lyrics I would hear after the violin hook would be “Sugar pie honey bunch / You know that I love you!” rather than what followed. Homage aside, the track is simply a great boy-girl pop song. It’s the shortest track on the album, but it’s one of its best. Like “Mr. Tough” on I’m Not Afraid… or “Let’s Save Tony Orlando’s House” on And Then Nothing…, “If It’s True” is the shiny pop gem gleaming amidst the darkness and feedback that surrounds it.
Next, bassist McNew turns in an assured lead vocal on the pleasant “I’m On My Way”. The track may not quite reach the heights of the McNew-sung “Stockholm Syndrome” off I Can Hear…, but it’s close. Hubley and Kaplan remain at the center of Yo La Tengo, but imagining the band without McNew is simply not possible at this point.
Hubley and Kaplan trade harmonies on the wonderful “When Its Dark” before the bossa nova swing of “All Your Secrets” wafts in with playful falsetto from McNew and a fine organ break. The track is perhaps the best pop-influenced song on the album, and it effectively sets up the last three epic tunes. The chugging “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”, the spare and reflective “The Fireside”, and the soundtrack to a hellish rainstorm “And the Glitter Is Gone”, extend to nine, 11, and 16 minutes respectively. Short or long songs—the band is up to the task.
Stylistically sprawling and experimental music can be fantastic in the right hands. As lesser bands come and go in the fickle landscape of indie rock, Yo La Tengo continue to excel. People may even forget how consistently solid they’ve been for so many years. They can even guide you home in bad weather.
Is there anything Yo La Tengo can’t do?
// Notes from the Road
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