Review Summary: band doesn't know how to suck
Belle and Sebastian may sing about starting cults, but no other 90s indie rock band was more suited for only a particular audience than Yo La Tengo. Of all other critic-adored and reasonably popular indie rock outlets of that time period---Pavement, Guided By Voices, the Flaming Lips---Yo La Tengo remain the most inaccessible, prone to crafting long, wide-ranging, and double-LP filling epics that usually run at least a good hour; often even more. And while these albums (along with everything the band’s ever done) are extremely engaging, this isn’t usually fully realized until after a couple close listens.
This makes the titling of the band’s twelvth (!) full-length album all the more bizarre, when you think about it. This is a band that has operated a fair length away from anything that could be considered popular, yet there’s that title, Popular Songs
, and that ugly-as
s artwork, which all begs the question: have these Hoboken indie heroes finally sold out on us" Are they finally crafting songs for the Timbaland crowd"
Well, no. But that isn’t to say Popular Songs
is completely derivative of anything the band’s done before, despite a few moments that beckon to an earlier time in the band’s career. Songs like the psychedelic stomper “Here To Fall”, the irresistibly groovy and funk-influenced “Periodically Triple or Double”, which features a discordant keyboard solo that has to be heard to be believed, and the ornate and carefree “If It’s True” represent new ground for the band, and it helps that all three songs are excellent, and are particularly highlighted here for being some of Popular Songs
’s better moments.
All these different styles and sounds all lie within minutes of one another, and if you’re worried that that makes this album seem like a mishmash genre-wise a la I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
, don’t be worried: much of Popular Songs
is actually rather cohesive (well at least its first half). Popular Songs
finds Yo La Tengo at its most subdued and chilled---bar the admittedly out-of-place rocker “Nothing to Hide”---and also finds the trio doing some pretty interesting things with, in lesser hands, mid-tempo borers. The keyboard-laden and atmospheric “By Two’s” recalls the band’s earlier song “Everyday”, in that it takes only the smallest amount of instrumentation---bass, a drum machine, and a few overdubbed and repetitive keyboards---and uses it effectively, effortlessly sparking a large theme of melancholy with very little. “When It’s Dark” stands out for being completely acoustic, and plugging out the electricity helps the listener feel more intimacy with Georgia Hubley’s restrained vocals and warm lyrics.
After the warm tones and chilled vibe of “All Your Secrets”, Popular Songs
enters a whole different side of Yo La Tengo’s sound altogether. Making up roughly half of the album, Popular Songs
closes on three extended jams, each rather different in their own right and each over nine minutes long. Of these three, the first, titled “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven”, is the best, being a slowly rising meditation of melancholy that ranks with the more beautiful epics the band’s ever crafted; it’s also one of the few songs on the album where distortion and hints towards the band’s shoegaze past makes an appearance, which is a definite plus.
After that, it’d take either the most diehard Yo La Tengo fan (me) or an extremely patient person (also me) to not cut the album short. “The Fireside” is particularly bizarre, consisting of not much else but a sparse acoustic and alternating keyboard tones, as similarly subdued playing (some guitar-crafted ambience and a somber bass riff) slowly enters the picture. And that’s about it, for a whole eleven minutes, which sounds taxing, but surprisingly isn’t: the band creates another late-night pleaser with the track, letting the listener drift off and create their own interpretation of the type of feelings YLT were trying to strike. And, again, it’s all best experienced in the dead of night.
“And the Glitter is Gone” is the biggest patience tester of the three, being mostly seventeen minutes of discordant skonk that basically begs the listener to cut the album short---thus being the biggest juxtaposition between the album’s title and its songs. However, the song isn’t anywhere near as bad as some fans are saying it to be: the song’s main propelling riff is a good’un, and the band has been proven to be rather good at doing some interesting things with their guitars, and works as a satisfying epilogue to an album rightfully closed by the song before it. While these final extended closers do sort of disrupt the previous nine tracks’ continuality, overall, they provide a different view of the band’s talents and sound, and each kick as
s in their own sort of way.
Thus ends another perfect Yo La Tengo album---their third, by the way---and thus ends any objectivity I’ve tried to establish with this review. Obviously, the final three tracks are meant to divide listeners and add a sense of daring to an otherwise relatively safe album, and that I like them all---along with every other song on Popular Songs
---isn’t going to be something that’s universal. You’re as likely to dislike those songs as you are to like them. And the fact that this band’s still doing such risks, especially after similar indie dinosaurs like Sonic Youth and Dinosaur Jr. released such directly fan-pleasing albums this year, is why Yo La Tengo have stood so high and above the indie landscape for so long. Because of this, I simply can’t wait for their thirteenth album.