Yo La Tengo’s consistency must really annoy a lot of critics. Every three years or so they release an album that’s at least really good and, on occasions (such as 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass or 1997’s masterpiece I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One), stupendously so. To date they’ve yet to make the kind of misguided detour that would warrant a poison-dipped dismantling. And that, in turn, means there’s no need to attach the billboard-friendly phrase ‘return to form’ to the next release.
Popular Songs is their first proper full-length since I Am Not Afraid Of You… (we’ll discount the determinedly lo-fi garage album Fuckbook, recorded under the pseudonym Condo Fucks). Popular Songs comprises nine short-ish songs followed by three very long ones. Even without the need to turn a record over, it’s easy to imagine this as an album of two halves: the first showcasing the band’s enduring way with a tune, the second their ability to jam without boring the listener.
Kicking off the ‘pop’ side is Here To Fall, which is a very Yo La Tengian title for what is a decidedly un-Yo La Tengian song. It adds something that’s generally lacking from the New Jersey band’s discography: drama. That arrives courtesy of some exciting, Curtis Mayfield-style strings that zig-zag across the song, adding grandeur to a typically low-key lyric hinting at some minor domestic discord: “I know you’re worried / I’m worried, too / But if you’re ready / I’m here to fall with you”.
After that, it’s business as usual. Which is to say, the band proves as eager to genre-hop as ever. Led by Kaplan’s tremulous falsetto, Avalon Or Someone Very Similar is the kind of gorgeous pop song that crops up at least once on every Yo La Tengo album. On By Two, Georgia Hubley’s drowsy vocals hover over a gently undulating organ refrain – it would feel right at home on 2000’s noir-ish …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.
Nothing To Hide is a brisk garage number that sounds like a spruced-up Fuckbook song (although, admittedly, a Birthday Party demo would sound ‘spruced-up’ next to anything off Fuckbook). Periodically Double Or Triple is a Stax-y strut powered by a Booker T-style organ line; the subtle backing vocals and wrong-footing muzak interlude save it from being a mere genre exercise. Similarly retro is If It’s True, a Motown-inspired tune on which Kaplan and Hubley duet like indie rock’s answer to Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell.
Bassist James McNew never fails to impress when he makes his infrequent visits to the vocal booth (see also: Mr Tough, Tiny Birds, Stockholm Syndrome), and the suave lounge number I’m On My Way continues that strong condition. Closing the album’s ‘pop’ side, When It’s Dark is a somewhat nondescript Hubley-sung number, but the delightfully saccharine All Your Secrets fares much better: the way the organ performs a little two-note echo in response to Hubley’s “doo-do”s is very cute indeed.
The three longer songs showcase Yo La Tengo’s mastery of the sprawl. More Stars Than There Are In Heaven displays the band’s ability to excavate beauty from the shallowest of resources: its nine minutes consist of little more than a luminous trail of feedback and Kaplan repeatedly singing the line “We’ll go hand in hand”.
The Fireside, clocking in at 11 minutes, represents the band at their most diffuse and ambient. Fans who might have missed the band’s noisier side over the preceding hour will be sated belatedly by And The Glitter Is Gone, a thrilling 15-minute instrumental that, in relation to the band’s other lengthy epics, can be placed somewhere between Spec Bebop and I Heard You Looking.
All of which might give the impression that Popular Songs is a super-eclectic, polymorphic work in the vein of I Am Not Afraid Of You … and I Can Hear The Heart… But that’s not quite true. Popular Songs might be a varied album, but these songs seem to exist within the same stylistic space, namely the Adult-Contemporary world also inhabited by 2003’s Summer Sun. It’s notable, for instance, that its key musical influences – soul, garage rock, lounge – are more traditional than usual.
Popular Songs may not quite scale the same heights as those found on I Am Not Afraid Of You… or I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One. It is, however, another really good album by Yo La Tengo. So, what’s new?