Yo La Tengo: Popular Songs

Photo by Michael Lavine

Yo La Tengo's Popular Songs: Recommended for all weather types, day or night.

Yo La Tengo

Popular Songs

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2009-09-08
UK Release Date: 2009-09-07
Label website
Artist website

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?


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.