Yo La Tengo
I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
By David M. Goldstein | 18 September 2006
The first song on Yo La Tengo’s new album, the Mclusky-ian titled “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” is an 11-minute guitar jam consisting of little more than a robotic James McNew bassline, Georgia Hubley’s insistent shaker and snare, and walls of feedback. Actually, there’s also frontman Ira Kaplan’s stoner-riffic incantations about going “slide, slide, slide down the waterslide…” but the words certainly take a backseat to the waves of glorious noise. Beginning a Yo La Tengo record in this fashion would appear to serve two purposes: a) creating a studio facsimile of the face-melting moments towards the end of every YLT show where Kaplan essentially impales himself on his Marshall Stacks and b) an aural “are you happy now, bitches?” to all the ungrateful sods who hated on Summer Sun.
Seriously, read what the blogger cognoscenti said about that record in 2003 and you’d be excused for thinking it came packaged with a side of VD. The biggest gripes appeared to stem from the fact that it was a considerably subdued effort, favoring a homogenous mood and completely bereft of Kaplan’s trademark shredding. It also didn’t help that Yo La Tengo already made a subdued mood record in the guise of 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. And while at least that record could make a claim for being somewhat “dark,” Summer Sun was its lovey-dovey flipside chock full of lyrics reflecting Kaplan and wife/drummer Georgia Hubley’s pillow talk (e.g. “I like to hold hands when we walk…”). Regardless, the beleaguered album still contains a number of pop gems that sound fantastic onstage, and I’m hoping that revisionist history will give it a fairer shake.
Once again embracing the genre-hopping that marked their finest mid-‘90s work, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is probably more akin to the Yo La Tengo album that most fans were hoping to get back in 2003. And because YLT is arguably the only outfit in existence that can convincingly do the jukebox thing without sounding like anyone other than themselves, it would be far less accurate to call I Am Not a retread than—and I know, so hoary cliché alert—a return to vintage form.
So the first half of this record throws the listener “Sister Ray”-style feedback jamming (the aforementioned “Hatchet”), graceful glide pop with overlaid harmonies (“The Race Is On Again”), fuzz organ freakouts with tribal bongos (“The Room Got Heavy”), and a handful of other tunes with full horn charts and jazzy Vince Guaraldi-style piano leads. It all culminates in “Daphinia,” a nine-minute ambient instrumental similar to 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One’s “Green Arrow” that merits a skip on a crowded subway but sounds utterly cool in the living room. Specific mention must also be made of “Mr. Tough,” a horn-flecked bossa that’s such an uncanny approximation of pure A.M. gold that it sounds like a Ween single (and as far as an ability to inhabit every genre imaginable while still sounding somewhat like your namesake, Ween are basically Yo La Tengo with better drugs and mangier fans).
The first nine tracks on I Am Not unquestionably maintain the “holds together like super glue, but I can’t point to why” standard that made mid-‘90s efforts like Heart so awesome. It also features some of Georgia Hubley’s finest lead vocals in recent memory on the lush balladry of “I Feel Like Going Home” and gossamer sheen of “The Race Is On Again.” There’s simply the presence of an understated, difficult-to-pinpoint quality that only Yo La Tengo records seem capable of evoking. It’s this same kind of quality that led my girlfriend to randomly exclaim “fuck, this record’s good” two minutes into “The Room Got Heavy” after seemingly paying minimal attention to the prior six songs while watching the E! Channel on mute. Credit is also due to longtime producer/unsung fourth band member Roger Moutenot, who gives these tracks a warm, lived-in feel, while never neglecting to play up the horn parts when necessary (“Mr. Tough” indeed).
If sides three and four lived up to the album’s first half, I’d have been talking AOTY by now, but the wildly fluctuating songs comprising tracks 10-15 fail to completely gel. “I Should Have Known Better” and “Point and Shoot” are the closest that Yo La Tengo gets to actual throwaways. Both are one-trick rock numbers that go nowhere, despite clever lyrics in the former about thinking twice before beating the ass of an inconsiderate driver who cuts you off. “The Weakest Part” is one jaunty piano song too many, and while “Watch Out For Me, Ronnie” is an amusing chunk of rockabilly punk (complete with Ira Kaplan’s attempt at a faux-Southern accent), it feels misplaced. However, nearly all’s forgiven with the purposely misspelled “The Story of Yo La Tango” (cruise their website sometime for the lowdown), the latest in a long line of epic YLT album closers, and an 11-minute blast of white noise as impressive as blaring past glories like “Blue Line Swinger” and “I Heard You Looking.”
A wane in consistency in its latter half keeps I Am Not from achieving the heights of Yo La Tengo’s best work, but it will unquestionably satiate their rabid fanbase awaiting a return to eclecticism while re-establishing Ira Kaplan’s status as an early fifty-something guitar god. It delivers the goods more so than Summer Sun did, and that’s basically just about all that the legions of once-again slobbering critics wanted to know. Or to once again paraphrase the girlfriend, “why waste your time writing about Yo La Tengo? Everyone already knows they’re awesome. Just pick a number and make that your review.” That’s about right.