The first lines Ira Kaplan sings on Yo La Tengo’s 13th album Fade may be, “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top / Sometimes the good guys lose,” but the arc of his band’s career proves that nothing could be further from the truth, at least in its own one case. While rock has always propped up self-destructive drama queens—and even the contrarian indie scene has often preferred hyping up ill-tempered high-maintenance types—the downright normal Hoboken trio proves that the good guys sometimes win, as the husband-and-wife team of Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are at the height of their popularity after almost three decades playing together as a band. In this case, the nicest, most grounded indie act probably ever has outlasted its more vaunted and dysfunctional peers like Pavement, Sebadoh, and even Sonic Youth, emerging as the unlikely last band standing from the scene’s ‘90s halcyon days.
So when Kaplan croons “Nothing stays the same” a little later on the opener “Ohm”, he’s definitely not talking about Yo La Tengo, which has survived and thrived thanks to a consistency and even-keeled work ethic unmatched on the indie circuit. In other words, Yo La Tengo’s hardly fading on Fade, the threesome’s good-natured nervous energy never flagging and its ESP-like back-and-forth as tight as ever. While much has been made—by the band itself, no less—about Yo La Tengo reining in its expansive, improvisational noiseplay in working for the first time with Tortoise whiz John McEntire as producer, not too much on Fade suggests the trio is holding back or refining its act, as the extra coating of feedback-y atmosphere on much of the album makes apparent.
If anything, the stunning “Ohm”, a patented Yo La Tengo workout that’s all about scuff-marked distortion pedals and elbow-greasy guitars instead of high-concept production trickery, makes it obvious right from the very start that the more things stay the same, the more things stay the same on Fade. The way Yo La Tengo combines Kaplan’s almost hoarse vocals, fuzzy guitar, zingy effects, and strategic maracas and bongos to whip up a harmonious cacophony on “Ohm” would be serendipitous, except that this is what Yo La Tengo does and has always done, drawing rhythm out of melody and hooks out of grooves. “Ohm” is the quintessential articulation of Yo La Tengo’s musical intuition, tapping into something that’s inherent to the outfit’s dynamic that can’t be corralled by the conscious intentions of any producer or perhaps even the players themselves.
Indeed, much of Fade feels like an exercise in free association with previous Yo La Tengo efforts, making it an album that’s appealingly familiar, yet without seeming like it only revisits past triumphs. Like a lower-key version of “Cherry Chapstick”, the ragged charmer “Paddle Forward” conveys easy-going good vibes with ramshackle playing and just enough guitar oomph to give it a driving pop sensibility. On its heels, “Stupid Things” takes Electr-O-Pura-era guitar noodling as a starting point before transitioning into the cricket-chirping atmospherics of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, as if they were reinterpreting tender ballads like “My Heart’s Reflection” and “The Hour Grows Late” with the benefit their early 2000s innovations. Likewise, after-hours ditty “Two Trains” would’ve fit comfortably on Nothing, its syncopated “Saturday”-like drum machine patterns adding some streetlamp-lit warmth to a still, dusky soundscape.
Whatever the collaboration with McEntire does introduce to the tried-and-true Yo La Tengo formula comes fully integrated into the mix, as not-too-obtrusive embellishments that don’t tamper with Yo La Tengo’s alchemical balance, rather accenting and drawing out the group’s sound just a little more. If there’s one aspect where McEntire’s influence is felt the most, it’s the incorporation of crisper instrumental accompaniments, most often in the form of clean string arrangements or brisk horn passages. While those elements are ones Yo La Tengo has utilized for awhile now, Fade does a better job of taking advantage of the way they can add more shape to the song structures, particularly in the case of Hubley’s chamber-pop piece “Cornelia and Jane”, which is bolder and sharper than similar tracks from the past few LPs. But it’s on the panoramic closer “Before We Run” that McEntire’s semi-classical touches shine through the best: Deservedly taking its place alongside the tour-de-force codas that are something of a Yo La Tengo tradition, “Before We Run” gains momentum with each repetition of the main melodic pattern, then gathers even more steam when the interplay of guitar and keyboard is punctuated by trumpets, violins, and skronky bits that add more depth and weight through the orchestration.
No matter how much—or even whether—Yo La Tengo’s approach changes on Fade, ultimately what ties this latest batch of songs to the band’s oeuvre as a whole is the open-hearted mood and generous feeling it conveys, something that’s a given whether the tracks sound the same or have an added layer of polish. The folksy sentimentality of “Is That Enough” gets across the band’s warm-and-fuzzies the best on Fade, as its buzzy guitar, plaintive keyboard lines, and Kaplan’s in-his-head lyrics are dressed up by a stately string accompaniment that sneaks its way to the fore. It’s a telling example of how Yo La Tengo is able to balance inviting, heartwarming nostalgia with just enough of a twist to make familiar sounding music feel fresh and vital after all the years. So when Kaplan asks, “Is that enough?,” and seems uncertain that it is, you know what the real answer is when it comes to Fade or actually any given Yo La Tengo effort: Yeah, Fade is more than enough, proof positive that these good guys always come out on top.