Ask serious Yo La Tengo fans which member of the trio they have the most genuine affection for, and chances are, nine times out of ten, they’ll say bassist James McNew. Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan seem a self-contained, somewhat insular unit (especially as their song lyrics beginning with And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out have come to seem more and more like barely veiled missives to each other). But McNew touches the place in us reserved for underdogs, runners-up, and middle children continually overshadowed by their more successful older and younger siblings. He seems infinitely patient, good-humored about his sideman status, apparently up for any creative twist or turn and satisfied with his one track per album within the context of his main gig. Even as more and more people come to acknowledge the depth of McNew’s contribution in helping to make Yo La Tengo the highbrow critical darlings they have become, it still doesn’t seem quite enough. So we’re always rooting for McNew to get his turn in the limelight.
Dump is James McNew’s place in the sun. Sideman no more, he is the band. McNew writes all the (non-cover) songs, he plays all the instruments, and he sings all the lead vocals. While he doesn’t have the most technically proficient voice, his vocals do have a heartfelt yet laid-back quality that recalls late ‘60s and ‘70s county-rock. He can also do a mean falsetto, as anyone who’s heard “Stockholm Syndrome” from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One or any of the Dump releases can attest. A Grown-Ass Man is Dump’s fifth full-length album (when you count his album of Prince covers titled That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice?), and on it he definitely remains on form.
The songs on A Grown-Ass Man run the gamut of McNew’s influences, from experimental sound pastiches to laconic Byrds/Eagles-like numbers to Thin Lizzy and Gerald Levert covers. Some don’t stray too far from McNew’s day job. Feedback-and-guitar-heavy “Basic Cable” sounds like Yo La Tengo used to before they went all soft and introspective. As does the fuzzed-out musical accompaniment on “Daily Affirmation”, which also features background vocals from Versus’ Fontaine Toups. On the other hand, other tracks are a definite departure. For example, it’s pretty difficult to imagine either Ira Kaplan or Georgia Hubley getting down with the wah-wah-punctuated slow jam of the Levert cover “Mr. Too Damn Good”.
It’s more gratifying, though, to take A Grown-Ass Man on its own rather than try to draw comparisons with McNew’s more well known musical venture. There’s plenty to appreciate. “I’m on Your Side” has a heartbreakingly pretty folky sound (aside from some serious vocal cracking on the high notes in the chorus). “Once upon a Time” is a sweet and simple duet with Sue Garner that sounds the way country music used to (and should). “Peggy’s Blues” and “Silver Lining” are quiet and gentle, like lullabies for the indie rock set, while “Sisters” goes a different route, spinning out a bleak electro-landscape populating only by McNew’s forlorn vocals. Even while spanning a number of different styles, nothing on A Grown-Ass Man comes off as jarring or out of place.
Some might be tempted to dismiss Dump as a vanity project, believing that bassists should be content with staying in the background and knowing on which side their bread is buttered. But one listen to A Grown-Ass Man should dispel those thoughts. This is a very consistent effort from a talented artist who clearly feels as comfortable standing on his own as he does being the dependable sideman in a high-profile band, as well he should. In this case, a little more vanity wouldn’t hurt.