Yo La Tengo
By Andrew Hall | 8 September 2009
Yo La Tengo is nothing if not a little predictable. Since the release of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One in 1997, every three years they’ve released a new album—usually between 60 and 78 minutes in length, with a few short songs, two or three very long songs, and varying degrees of moodiness therein. Whereas the last in this series, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (2006), felt in many ways like a retreat back into guitar noise and genre exercises from Summer Sun‘s (2003) plaintive arrangements and devastatingly quiet tones, on Popular Songs the band sounds like they’re pushing forward as much as they’re pulling back. There’s guitar fuzz and genre worship, as expected, but it’s tightly woven into one of the most outright enjoyable records this band has ever made.
If And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000) is a record built on slow-moving tempos and a fixation on Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s relationship, Popular Songs is one that obsesses over plans. “Here To Fall” establishes this quickly, as Kaplan insists that “there’ll be dreams that don’t come true,” and “Periodically Double or Triple” sees him ruminating on things he’s done wrong or never done before. On duet “If It’s True” it comes up again, as Georgia mentions “the plans we made somehow got off the track,” and Ira follows this up immediately by insisting that “maybe we forgot to plan.” By “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” they seem to have come to sort of simple resolution, as universal expansion and the coming apocalypse—or whatever’s going on in the track—is met by repetition: “We’ll walk hand in hand.” Yo La Tengo’s draw has almost never been in their lyrics, and these songs are not exceptions to this, but their themes do come across very clearly.
Furthermore, that lyrical cohesion is a pretty useful thing, since Popular Songs is more sprawling than it is obsessed with a single musical mood. “Here To Fall” crashes in with a drum fill reminiscent of My Bloody Valentine’s “Only Shallow” and rides soaring strings in its chorus, and first single “Periodically Double or Triple” features its indulgent Kaplan noise bit on organ, rather than electric guitar, prompting Booker T comparisons. There are moments of fairly straightforward pop as Yo La Tengo’s been playing for the better part of twenty years now—“Nothing To Hide” is some fuzzed-out guitar stuff with harmonies that bring Heart single “Sugarcube” to mind, and “By Two’s” could have probably fit in on any of the band’s other 2000s records—but there are signs of progress here. “If It’s True,” the band’s take on Motown arranging, is driven entirely by its string part and Ira and Georgia’s perfect back-and-forth melodies. Beyond that, it’s little things—how confident James McNew sounds on “I’m On My Way” compared to anything else he’s had on a YLT album, Hubley’s layered vocals on “Avalon or Someone Very Similar,” the Fleetwood Mac leanings hinted at on almost all of these songs—that make them so replayable.
What’s most curious, however, is the fact that the record is split into two distinct halves by its sequencing. The album’s last three songs occupy almost as much time as all of the preceding tracks combined, making them practically optional listening after the most immediate Yo La Tengo record in a very long time. “More Stars” starts this set off unbelievably, its nine blissed-out minutes never becoming all-consuming, the melodies slowly building, repeating, and vanishing out of some sort of haze courtesy of Roger Moutenot. It’s easily one of the most moving six-plus minute songs this band’s ever crafted, thanks in large part to Hubley’s harmonies and Kaplan’s sometimes warbling guitar, which skirts the line between being utterly indulgent and being essential to the song. This in turn illustrates what’s wrong with “The Fireside” (all production, all one acoustic guitar part, no tune, much like an actual fireside) and “And The Glitter Is Gone” (almost no development, sixteen minutes, nowhere near as explosive or vital as “The Story of Yo La Tango” was to I Am Not Afraid Of You…).
Despite the 26 minutes wasted by these final tracks, as damning as that sounds, this is still a very good Yo La Tengo record. With those two songs omitted—and the band has made it easy for you, they come at the very end, and on their own sides of vinyl—Popular Songs becomes a concise, accessible record in a back catalog that’s become dominated by growers, discs that fill the capacity of the compact disc despite not needing to, and twenty-minute renditions of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War.” And that’s something to celebrate.