These days, Yo La Tengo seem happy with who they are.
After near enough three decades in existence, who can blame them? And the fact that two thirds of the band are husband and wife (Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley) means this milestone deserves even more commendation. It certainly must make for one interesting band dynamic.
With ‘Fade’, the band continue their genre-hopping, soft-glowing, heart-warming alt. rock, and this their thirteenth studio album settles into a template of a few of their previous albums. But this doesn’t mean that they’re simply retreading their own well-worn musical paths and regurgitating the same old songs. On the contrary. Yo La Tengo operate with a lot more subtlety than that.
Notably, the way the album kicks off is reminiscent of their two previous albums proper (‘I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass‘ and ‘Popular Songs‘), both of which begin with a pair of sprawling uni-chordal psychedelic monsters (‘Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind‘ and ‘Here To Fall‘ respectively).
‘Fade’ is similar, as the very impressive DADGAD tuned guitar drone rock of the track ‘Ohm‘ relentlessly rattles the speakers into submission whilst Kaplan and Hubley sweetly intone emotive couplets like, “the higher we go, the longer we fly”, as well as mildly comical ones like, “hurts the brain to think, hurts the head to drink”.
It’s this mild sense of mischief that sees the band follow up such a sprawling opener with the comfortingly sugar-coated pop song ‘Is That Enough‘ – again a tactic of their previous albums (see the bouncing piano of ‘Beanbag Chair‘ or the glorious jangle pop of ‘Avalon or Someone Very Similar‘). Whilst not reaching the heights of those tracks of yore, its orchestral arrangement is quite simply enchanting and certainly elevates it up a notch.
Of course, there’s always the song where they let their hair down and relive their younger days with garage rock abandon. On ‘Fade’ it’s ‘Paddle Forward’, a fuzz rock stomper from the ‘Nowhere To Hide’ school on which Kaplan and Hubley duet with effortless delivery and a studied cool that evokes an eager-to-impress youth toting a strategically smoked cigarette.
Elsewhere, they take a few new detours, such as adopting the motorik beat beloved of seminal krautrockers NEU! on ‘Stupid Things’, and take great joy in dousing the whole thing with Kaplan’s oozing, overdriven Fender riffery. ‘I’ll Be Around’ is a lovely, lilting acoustic number that circles overhead in formation with subtle reed organ and James McNew’s rather Belle and Sebastian-esque pulsating bassline.
Also, the band are careful to make sure that they don’t always take themselves too seriously – ‘Well You Better’ being the perfect example. A short, simple sub three-minute shuffle across thrift store keyboards with a jaunty melody welcomes the almost comedic entrance of guitar licks slung through a Peter Frampton Talk Box. The jarring aspect of all this is the comparably heartfelt and pleading of Kaplan’s lyrics as – just one step above a whisper – he asks you to, “make up your mind before it’s too late”.
A couple of tracks give a courteous nod over the shoulder towards 1993 and their hazy, dreamy album ‘Painful’, in particular the Hubley led ‘Cornelia and Jane’. With the reverb pedal turned up to full on delicate Stratocaster slide guitar whirls, a cloud-like cover from the horn section caresses Hubley’s heartbreaking vocal. Kaplan takes over on ‘Two Trains’, a nocturnal blend of in-tune feedback and sleepy “doo-doo-doos”.
For all their diversions, the band’s understated sound so defined by their seminal albums ‘And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out’ and ‘I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One’ is their forte. It has been an improvement on their earlier days of searing indie and ‘naïve guitar’ tunes and the culmination of outgrowing their youthful shyness and reticence.
The song here that exemplifies that most is album closer ‘Before We Run’. Say Mr Starkey was a little more ‘relaxed’ when he was laying down the drums for ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, it would have probably sounded a little something like the start of this song. It’s a slow burning, shoegazing dream of escape in which Hubley is, “running away from now” over droning distorted guitars, a gloriously gliding orchestra with horn section in tow. “Take me to your distant lonely place,” sing the ever-sultry Hubley, “take me out beyond mistrust”
It’s simple really, Yo La Tengo make music that all three of them like. Be it a folk influence, some krautrock or a little bit of country, they’re not restricted by barriers or some kind of default ‘Yo La Tengo Sound’. But that’s the beauty of what they do, because no matter what they turn their hands to it is still unmistakeably Yo La Tengo and therefore it is in fact, that ‘Yo La Tengo Sound’.
A beautiful paradox.