Yo La Tengo
Over the course of the last 25 years, Hoboken-based band Yo La Tengo has emphatically established itself as the elder statesmen of indie rock: an adventurous and dynamic trio whose limited mainstream success has never prompted the band to sacrifice its diverse musical visions in any bid for widespread appeal. While exploring new musical avenues doesn’t get any easier as years go by, Popular Songs, the band’s 12th full length LP, shows that Yo La Tengo is still capable of creating a unique medley of dream-pop meditations unlike anyone else in contemporary music.
Like 1996’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, Popular Songs is a musical hodgepodge with all the theatrical variations of a vaudeville extravaganza. Few songs sound remotely alike, as guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew incorporate a wide array of sounds and styles. The breezy string arrangements of the opener “Here to Fall” bleed into the floating-on-clouds sensations of “Avalon or Someone Familiar” and “By Two’s,” before the band jerks listeners back to earth with the up-tempo, guitar-driven “Nothing to Hide.” “Periodically Triple or Double” and “If It’s True” are ripe with funk and soul overtones, exhibiting the keyboards that permeate much of the record, while a flittering organ and Kaplan’s nasal, understated vocals lend an airy ambiance to “All Your Secrets.”
In an album full of unexpected twists, perhaps what are most surprising are the three epic closers that span over 37 minutes in length. The subdued, faraway “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” sends listeners back to Cloud Nine, while “The Fireside” features a slowly ascending whirlwind of steady acoustic guitar strums, trancelike backing vocals and wistful echoes that may put listeners in a meditative daze. The only unwelcome inclusion is the drawn out “And the Glitter is Gone,” a nearly 16-minute “big finish” style closer in which the band punishes its instruments with the type of disjointed and unmelodic aggressiveness one would expect from a garage band stumbling through a sound check.
Like other Yo La Tengo records, Popular Songs is topically abstract, offering only patchy allusions to worry, escape, imagination and reverie. Though Kaplan’s sentiments range from philosophical (“I got time on my hands that I can’t wash off“) to paranoid (“Walls are closing in/ They always do/ I’m seeing double and triple/ Does this ever happen to you?“), the band’s magnetism lies not in its lyrics but in its beautifully muddled vocal delivery. Clearly Kaplan and company are experts at manipulating their voices into instruments in their own right — Yo La Tengo could sing the ingredients off a can of mushroom soup and the result would be a pleasant listen — but perhaps most remarkable is Hubley’s background cooing on several tracks, giving the record an especially ethereal feel.
The problem with being such a musically diverse band is that listeners begin to expect the unexpected, but let’s be fair: there are only so many approaches that one band can possibly take, and Yo La Tengo has already broken so much musical ground that anything short of a polka-mariachi hybrid would be passé for such an eclectic group. Popular Songs certainly isn’t Yo La Tengo’s boldest work, and diehard fans will hear plenty of ghosts from past projects haunting this record, but this shouldn’t distract from the fact that Popular Songs is just experimental enough to be unique and features indie rock’s most established darlings at their harmonious best.