Yo La Tengo have been around for over 20 years now, and, as you might imagine, their sound has morphed along the way. While their early years saw the band perfecting atmospheric noise rock, the band has increasingly sounded like a jazz band, stretching their songs into extended explorations of noise that are simultaneously untamed and controlled — which, you might say, are the two contradictory yet organic attributes of jazz. Their last two albums, …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Summer Sun, were quiet affairs — the former more somber and lunar; the latter, naturally, more upbeat and sunny. Both LPs, however, were hushed and ethereal, slowly spreading out from the center until they dissolved into the air. Both were also reflective and ambient meditations on love, albums so understated and subtle they are strangely overwhelming.
How, then, is Yo La Tengo supposed to follow up on two thematically-linked releases, the first a masterpiece and the second its captivating counterpoint? Well, if you’re Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew, you start with an ironic but attention-grabbing title: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. Whatever your thoughts on the album, this, you must concede, is the title of the year — and it couldn’t be more apt. No, Yo La Tengo aren’t tough guys; three plump, middle-aged bohemians from Hoboken don’t exactly arouse fear in anyone. But Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew have led about as fearless a career a band could forge, ignoring both popular trends and mainstream indifference. It’s not shocking, then, that the new album will beat your ass.
Indeed, the title merely hints at what’s within the album. Rather than trying to maintain the feel of their last couple of albums, Yo La Tengo have made a stunning LP that is sprawling and eclectic; static-driven buzz rock is placed next to jazzy piano jaunts, which are in turn placed next to reflective ballads — and that’s just the first fourth of the album. If you listened to the songs separately and at different times, you’d think they were from different albums, if not different bands. But this is a captivating listen, not a disjointed one, and the unifying element is the band’s confident musicianship, the kind displayed by seasoned musicians who aren’t afraid to let inspiration take them somewhere unexpected and rewarding.
To prove this, the trio begins the album with “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”, a 10-minute, 46-second hypnotic-psychedelic-surf-jam marked by a driving bass riff and fuzzed-out guitar. While the track initially sounds like it’s going nowhere fast, it soon burrows into your head, making more sense the longer it refuses to conform to verses and choruses. This is followed up by “Beanbag Chair”, a chirpy piano romp with horns and falsetto vocals. And then comes “I Feel Like Going Home”, which is a ballad built upon an arthritic violin and Georgia Hubley’s demurely enigmatic vocals. Then there’s “Mr. Tough”, which sounds like Prince fronting the Vince Guiraldi Trio. You see where this is going… To detail the album track by track is to merely give the Cliff’s Notes-version of a captivating work of art. You could easily point to the last third of the album for examples of great tunes; “The Weakest Part” is Sunday-morning jazz — all sunshine and bouncing about — while closing track “The Story of Yo La Tengo” is complete noise rock, making brilliant static for over 11 minutes.
Reviewing this album, then, is like trying to describe a cool and sunny Sunday afternoon — no liberal expenditure of adjectives and verbs can recreate the experience of just sitting and taking it all in while relaxing. If you like avant-garde rock, it’s here; then again, if you like melodic-pop rock, it’s here too. Most bands just don’t possess the gravitas to effectively put the two together.
Yes, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is nothing if not dazzling, and Kaplan, Hubley, and McNew have grown into their roles as veterans and gatekeepers of the indie scene. Like their peers Sonic Youth and perhaps Wilco, Yo La Tengo have reached the point in their career where they are free to experiment without having to prove anything, and perhaps that feeling of creative liberation is what spawned such an astonishing album. Whatever the artistic catalyst, this is another gem by one of rock’s most accomplished and enduring bands, which, unfortunately, means the album is destined to see its way into too few CD players. Somehow, though, it’s hard to imagine Yo La Tengo fretting about not connecting with the “cool” kids… What have they done lately that approaches this level of brilliance?