Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs
Record Label: Matador
Release Date: September 8, 2009
At the outset, Popular Songs, the title of Yo La Tengo's twelfth and latest album, almost sounds tongue-in-cheek. At this stage of the game, it's pretty much a given that a Yo La Tengo release isn't going gain much exposure outside of indie circles. However, a listen to the album reveals it as perhaps the most populist of the band's career. It's not that they haven't released easily digested material in the past; they have, but there's more of it here. Also, in an interesting sequencing decision, the ten-minute indulgences that have made their albums a little difficult for those with short attentions spans have been placed at the end of the album, almost as optional "just-for-the-diehards" fare.
The longest song of the first nine, "Here to Fall" opens the album with a shimmering wave of sound, buzzing bass and lively strings that offset the otherwise hypnotic atmosphere. Always eclectic, Yo La Tengo entertain their wide-ranging ambitions here as well, and "Avalon or Someone Very Similar," a light, airy and sweetly-sung tune, finds them venturing into gentle late-'60s pop. Regardless of the style they're playing in, the band is near perfect in execution, a touchstone of their experience. The stripped "By Two's," for example, is mesmerizing in its minimalism, with the trance-inducing vocals complementing the sparse arrangements perfectly.
Breaking the chain of slow songs, "Nothing to Hide" breaks out with rousing garage-rock guitars, though it still feels very laid-back with the amiable harmonies of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. The upbeat sequence continues with the thoroughly danceable "Periodically Double or Triple," an organ-dominated groove with a classic soul vibe. "If It's True" slows things down a bit, if ever so slightly, but it's so simple and relaxed that it's hard not to be captured by it. It's the sonic equivalent of lazily gazing up at a crystal blue sky without a care in the world, and when Kaplan and Hubley harmonize, "There's a million other things that keep me up at night," it's hard to imagine them troubled by anything.
The wispy "I'm on My Way" poses the question: "Why don't we float into space?" and with Kaplan's delicate strumming and soft croon, that's exactly what happens. Equally enthralling are "When It's Dark," whose anesthetic blend of folk and psychedelia recalls Midlake, and the elegantly refined "All Your Secrets," which brings to a close the album's more accessible first half.
At more than thirty-six minutes in length, the final three tracks run longer than the first nine, and it's not inconceivable that some listeners might find them not worth the effort. Patience is advised, however, on the sparkling "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven," arguably the album's strongest cut. The mantra of "We'll walk hand in hand," draped over a glistening backdrop will crawl under your skin if you let it. "The Fireside" is, admittedly, tough to get into, as it's mostly faint acoustic guitar with interspersed whispered vocals. For the first listen, it might seem like the song is building up to something, but alas, it seems content just to wander. The closing "And the Glitter Is Gone" is also challenging, but not quite to the same degree; as an exercise in Sonic Youth-like noisemongering, it pretty much comes at you full-bore and doesn't leave you breathless in anticipation of an ultimately non-existing climax. Still, the abrasive discord will likely not appeal to everyone.
Popular Songs ends up being something of a tale of two albums, with the first part characterized by a very immediate approach, with the backside requiring significantly more endurance. Yo La Tengo has never been an easy band, though, and on the whole, this album presents them at their most instantly likeable. Devout fans will still find much to love about the record, as most of the band's hallmarks are represented here, but naysayers who've written them off in the past as just a little too esoteric would do well to try Popular Songs on for size.