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Monday, January 28, 2013

REVIEW: Yo La Tengo - "Fade"


Yo La Tengo 
Fade
Record Label - Matador
Release Date - January 15, 2013

With some bands, I worry about titling any sort of critical response to them that I might take a "review," because, frankly, I'm less invested in the word than what I would dub an appreciation.  Reviewing is too easy these days.  We live our life in likes and thumbs up and thumbs down, digitalized expressions of naiveté and 140-character quick hits which can't possibly take the complexity of something like a novel or a well-made album into consideration.  It's not that I'm against social media, it's that I think there's a time and a place for it, just like there are certain ideas that should be short stories and certain ones that should be novels.  Unfortunately, our expression is corporately controlled and so we draw within the lines of the people that facilitate our communication.  So be it.  We opted into this damn thing in the first place.  Therefore, let me begin by dispelling the following rumors.  

1.  Yo La Tengo is not "back."  They never left.
2.  Anyone who tells you Fade isn't as good as their earlier work, just started listening to Yo La Tengo a couple years ago and is, therefore, not entitled to an opinion.

Nevertheless, Yo La Tengo are the old kids on the block and it's hard not to feel a sense of return on the aptly titled Fade, their first album since the genre schizophrenia of 2009's  Popular Songs. Going since 1984, Yo La Tengo are something that we take for granted.  Perhaps the most endearing aspect of the band is their acceptance of the wackadoodle.  Just listen to them sing "Meet the Mets" on the comp Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics or Ira Kaplan bemoan the loss of fall outerwear amid throbbing bass and congas on "Autumn Sweater" from the iconic I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.  The band's ability to get goofy, interspersing profound introspection (do I need to say,  "I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One," again?) with comedy (see 2006's I am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass), incongruity, or irreverence is what makes the band beloved and, sometimes, under-appreciated. It's a formula that sticks on Fade as Kaplan intones on "Is That Enough" -- "All that matters / for me is you / Is that enough? Oh / Is that enough? Well / Is that enough? No."  Placed among ironically soaring strings and his wife Georgia's harmonic cooing, Ira's buzzing guitar seems, like the lyrics, to aggravate what should be the serenity of the song.  

There's no doubt that Yo La Tengo are one of the most intelligent bands working; however, their distinctive melancholic underplay (as on one of my favorite songs of all time "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House") creates a vapor which seems to shroud the band's acumen.  The band seems to shake off that apathetic haze at least once on an album, as is the case with "Is that Enough," but the rest of the album often seems like a monolithic bloc -- an entire soundscape -- as opposed to individual tracks collected together.  Starter "Ohm," with its unsettling organ moan, sets the tone as the entire group seems to raise collectively, "Sometimes the bad guys / come out on top / Sometimes the good guys lose / We try not to lose our hearts / to lose our minds / but nothing stays the same / nothing's explained / cause this isn't the road we know."  "Ohm" may not seem that sonically different than an opener like "Everyday" from And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, but the key is the song's collective opening.  

While we get hints of previous albums, Fade turns out to be less about forging new ground or alluding to previous works as it is about the process of aging.  The slow twang of "The Point of It" ambles through a dissonant piano as Kaplan murmurs about failings and follies before slowly twisting the final chorus into:  "Say that we're afraid / say the night is cold / Honey that's okay / If we're getting old / If we're not so strong / If our story's told / That's the point of being born."  It's a beguilingly simple, romantic, unfailingly optimistic, and existential phrase which seems to barely emerge out of Yo La Tengo's trademarked soundscape (which, I should add is done great justice by John McEntire, one of the unsung heroes of indie rock). When Georgia's voice takes over the final track, "Before We Ran," it's hard not to feel the weight of this band's immense contribution to the music that we love through what is, since the breakup of Kim and Thurston, one of the best love stories in music.  Appropriately, the couple harmonizes, "Take me where it's only us" before the track moves slowly into a prolonged orchestral flourish.

It leaves one nagging question behind:  Is Fade a breakup album?  There's no doubt that Kaplan and Hubley seem to be expressing their own musical mortality.  The melancholic and nostalgic disposition of the last tracks and the album's scope and title suggests that, at the very least, it's a meditation on getting older (fading away rather than burning out), but I see something more substantial than that.  Amid the drone (a friend once said to me that he loved Yo La Tengo but that they could be so ambient it was hard to stay awake to), amid Georgia's exacting percussion (is there a better drummer than Georgia Hubley?) is the collective assertion of self and partner (both romantic and musical).  If there is a fade here, it's a collective one and an assertion of intellect and understanding and the band's identity, so strong that its hard not to take notice.  Yet, the back of me worries if we will, if I will.  I mean let's face it, there's so much out there that a relatively short album by a musical artist of note could get lost in the shuffle, right?  That we'll move on to the next big thing and louder keyboard sounds and guys from Brooklyn with guitars and will forget the stalwarts from Hoboken.  It seems that for Yo La Tengo this doesn't really matter, which is a good path to take since taste is fickle and more wackadoodle than doing a straight-up cover of "Meet the Mets."  What matters is that they did tell their story.  And that story is more nuanced than most.  That's more than okay by me.  It's why I listen to and appreciate music.

2 comments:

Brett
at: January 28, 2013 at 12:24 PM said...

Awesome post Hank. I could not agree with you more. Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous
at: April 3, 2013 at 11:36 PM said...

Great album. Yo La Tengo has obviously evolved, they've been around long enough; people shouldn't be holding this up to their older albums they should approach it on it's own merit.

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