I’ve always thought that the British music press’ reputation for ‘building them up and knocking them down’ is a bit erroneous, though it’s undoubtedly true that there’s a possibly obsessive fetishisation of the new that can sometimes bias against longer-serving bands. Maybe ‘build them up, get distracted by something else, then more or less forget they exist’ might be a truer reflection of what happens.
Obviously, I try not to do this, but sometimes I do find myself taking great bands a little for granted. I think that was the case with Yo La Tengo’s last album, “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass”, which I never really found a way into, after loving pretty much everything that came before it.
This year’s brilliantly tossed-off garage covers album as the Condo Fucks served, though, as an admittedly incongruous reminder of how much I like Yo La, and so a nice teaser about “Popular Songs” posted on my playlist blog a few days ago made the prospect of this, at least their 12th, album, pretty appealing.
It turns out to be very good, too. As Baptiste implies in that last link, “Popular Songs” is less like the grab-bag of styles that was “I Am Not Afraid Of You…”, and much more akin to the discreet, harmonious “Summer Sun” – and its similarly restrained predecessor, “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out”.
The “Sugarcube”-ish, rumbustious indiepop of “Nothing To Hide” (the sort of thing that’s always been my least favourite Yo La mode, compared with the various configurations of hush and freakout that surrounds these songs usually) is very much the exception here; as is the perfectly crotchety and brief electric solo that Ira Kaplan bashes out towards the song’s end.
Generally, the atmosphere is delicate, subtly melodic and meticulously crafted, perhaps confirming the idea that Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have become their generation’s foremost chroniclers of the vagaries of long-term love. There’s also a newer, soulful lilt to a bunch of these songs. The opening “Here To Fall” might open with a menacing flutter of electronics, perhaps generated in some avant-garde ‘60s lab, but soon enough, swooping Charles Stephney strings are taking it somewhere else entirely.
“If It’s True”, meanwhile, begins like “I Can’t Help Myself” and then showcases Hubley and Kaplan as a sort of self-effacing Marvin and Tammi, while the fantastic “Periodically Double Or Triple” is a droll R&B vamp in the vein of “Harlem Shuffle” – citing ignorance of Proust and DIY incompetence as an opening gambit – built round an organ part that’s part Jimmy Smith, part Sun Ra.
There are two quite superb songs in the middle of the record, “I’m On My Way” and “When It’s Dark”, that epitomise that frail, elegaic and insidious way Yo La Tengo can construct a song; one that initially seems dominated by a beguilingly dreamy atmosphere, but smuggles in a great tune, too, without you quite realising it’s there.
To compound this, the old Yo La Tengo tradition of ending with a long, unravelling piece is doubled here, so that “Popular Songs” closes with “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” (nine and a half largely quiet minutes) and “The Fireside” (11 and a half substantially quieter minutes). It’s a terrific trick, with “More Stars” being a gorgeous, downplayed epic in the vein of “Night Falls On Hoboken” (or maybe “I Heard You Looking”, playing in a distant room).
“The Fireside” is better still, beginning with minimal acoustic guitar and space (reminiscent of James Blackshaw at his simplest and most meditative), and finally, after seven-odd minutes, evolving into a song. By the way, you can download “Periodically Double Or Triple” from Yo La Tengo’s site; let me know, as ever, what you think.