Review: Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

by Katherine


Originally Posted at TheFourOhFive.com

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With a band as unfailingly adored as Hoboken’s Yo La Tengo, there is always an apprehension around the time of their newest release – that this’ll be the album to break the magic, to spoil the canon. Twenty-five years and 12 albums in, and Yo La Tengo have yet to confirm those fears, every couple of years coming out with an album that is so consistently innovative, so consistently good that – when many of their peers have fallen into a pit of uninspired rock drudgery – they are still as fresh-sounding and as innovative as they were in 1986.

Following in the style of the genre mish-mash ‘I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One’, album opener ‘Here To Fall’ is unashamedly grandiose – Yo La Tengo’s trademark, fuzzy bass nestles alongside epic, orchestral strings, IDM bleeps and hammered jazzy piano. On paper it shouldn’t work, but somehow Yo La Tengo pulls it all together into something harmonious and cohesive.

Typically, Yo La Tengo completely shift gear in the second track, ‘Avalon or Something Similar’, which has a sugary, slightly retro feel – recalling ‘Throw Aggi Off The Bridge’ style jangliness. The sunshine is quickly dispelled in the drone- influenced ‘By Two’s’, Hubley’s lethargic vocals float over hazy synths, faintly recalling a ‘Kid A’ outtake.

In the first part of the album, Yo La Tengo play it safe – well, safe for Yo La Tengo. ‘Nothing To Hide’ is straightforward, fuzzed-up Indie Rock – recalling Pavement at their most playful, the strutting, Hammond-propelled groove of ‘Periodically Double or Triple’ ventures into funk with wonderful results, and ‘More Stars Than There Are In Heaven’ is heavenly, bucolic dream-pop, it’s rumbling guitars and burbling synths recalling recent work by shoe gaze band Asobi Seksu – although the clear album highlight is the lush ‘If It’s True’ and it’s gorgeous 50’s-inspired strings ; it’s as lovely and as sunshine-laden as any Belle & Sebastian record, and Hubely and Kaplan’s duet is utterly beguiling.

Although the first half of ‘Popular Songs’ is immensely enjoyable, there’s no sign of the dizzying experimentalism that made them so revered by critics – until the last two tracks. ‘The Fireside’ – 11 minutes and 25 seconds of aimless, if gorgeous, guitar strumming – falls slightly flat; it’s so relaxed as to be static, and seems to be building up to a climax that never comes.

After the languorous ‘The Fireside’, dynamic closer ‘And The Glitter was Gone’ is a noisy, but welcome wake-up call, recalling Yo La Tengo’s earlier, more rock-orientated days – and although a good 10 minutes too long, it’s nice to see that Kaplan hasn’t lost the ability to monumentally rock out.

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