Yo La Tengo

Popular Songs

You sometimes get the impression that Yo La Tengo are stalked by their own awareness of how capable they are of writing classic pop music, and have to exert self-discipline through self-sabotage by submerging string-driven sweetness in beach-blanket fuzz and cranky organ parts. This describes ‘Here To Fall’ — the first track on Popular Songs, ergo an effective reintroduction given that the last YLT LP was three years ago. In the form presented here it would stick out like a mutant thumb on either Radio One or Magic FM. Yet in respect of its arrangement and most of its instrumentation, it comes from the same consciously crescendo-ridden place as, say, Take That’s ‘Patience’. Imagining an alternate reality where YLT didn’t get popular enough to make a living for its members, and Ira weaseled his way into the pop ghostwriting racket to compensate, is not that difficult, and also kind of fun. (There’s still time, Ira, if you’re reading! Just look at, er, the guy from Rancid.)

Yo La Tengo, in actuality, enjoy a comfortable existence as bands in 2009 go. Established enough that they can tour the world at more or less their own leisure, without the threat of either expiring from exhaustion or having their popularity fall prey to shifting trends, it’s also fair to say that they inspire little outright hostility. Should you be rubbed the wrong way by their magpie-like eclecticism, idle pop culture references and the fact that Ira Kaplan is one of those ‘music journo who decided to give rock music a go’ types — well, it’s easy enough to ignore them. So: will Popular Songs convert people who had previously thumbed their nose at the Yo La aesthetic? Probably not. They stick to a slightly narrower breadth of styles over these 73 minutes (yep — you’ve gotta be in for the long haul) than on some previous albums, and ultimately sound like themselves exclusively. It’s a Yo La Tengo album for people who buy Yo La Tengo albums. How does it measure in their own canon? Pretty strongly. It’s not a personal best for Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew, but it’s probably better than their last two albums. (If you recognise this as being the most wretchedly clichéd thing that can be written about an act with a large back catalogue, you got me — but in every cliché lies some truth, right?)

Highlights, then? ‘Periodically Double Or Triple’ is a Meters-y garage-funk strutter that features a rare YLT occurrence of an inherently quotable couple of lines (their lyrics have always been perfectly decent, sometimes even moving, but have tended to favour a certain economy of expression over jump-out-at-you phrases): "Never read Proust — it seems a little too long / Never used a hammer without somehow using it wrong." ‘I’m On My Way’ is the kind of YLT sap-bait song that they’ve utilized a lot in the last decade or so (1999’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out being their best album in this scribe’s opinion), Ira alternating between singing and speech, reverb cranked to emergency levels and floating in some lovely pre-garage, post-doowop void. ‘When It’s Dark’, sung by Georgia, is fairly boilerplate stuff for the trio, recalling And Then Nothing. . . classic ‘Cherry Chapstick’ and Summer Sun‘s ‘Little Eyes’ in roughly equal measure. Fortunate, then, that their boilerplate output would be a lot of other bands’ high water marks.

The final three songs comprise roughly half the album’s length. ‘More Stars Than There Are In Heaven’ and ‘The Fireside’ park somewhere between ambience and somnambulance, and could have likely been edited down without too much being lost; ‘And The Glitter Is Gone’ (can this possibly be a play on words concerning coin-razing cleaning product Easy-Off BAM, or Cillit Bang as it is known in the UK? Can it?) is 16 minutes long and their oft-employed ‘noisy one’. It’s relatively structured, bearing in mind they can effect a burly freakout of little form when they wish, but the ‘wind tunnel’ footswitch is vigorously applied, and momentum is maintained to the close. Popular Songs isn’t a perfect album, but it in no way shames the enduring trio, and has moments that acolytes will likely find themselves returning to and basking in their chiming, slightly off-model glory. Or, if you prefer, perhaps Yo La Tengo are treading water on this album, but the water’s lovely.

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