FIRST PUBLISHED AT THE LINE OF BEST FIT
Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs
Perennial critics’ favourites Yo La Tengo return with an album that reigns in some of the magpie tendencies of 2006′s sprawling ‘I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass’ with a more focused set. ‘Popular Songs’ – their twelfth long-player – finds Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley getting the balance beautifully right between their experimental and eclectic urges and indie dream pop, with all the constituent parts pulling together into a satisfyingly evocative whole.
‘Popular Songs’ opens with some metallic drones which might prompt you to wonder if you had put the right CD on, before a thrilling swirl of strings, washing synths and tweaked vocals usher in something unexpectedly psychedelic. But despite the saturated bass and jazzy, distorted keyboard solos, ‘Here to Fall’ is still a smartly centred pop track. By contrast, ‘Avalon or Someone’ is perhaps more representative of what most people think is the Yo La Tengo ‘sound’, a perfect slice of falsetto nostalgia pop, the fuzzily remembered and achingly felt.
‘By Two’s is a nocturnal mood piece of eerie woodland atmospherics: “Hush little Baby, don’t you cry … cross over to the other side’, whispers Hubley ominously. While ‘Nothing to hide’ is a more generic if catchy indie rocker, ‘Periodically Double of Triple’ is all geek soul with organ stabs and funky bass, with Kaplan bemoaning that he has “Never read Proust … sounds a little too long / Never used a hammer … without somehow using it wrong”. Before it starts to sound a bit daft there’s a wonky little breakdown of sorts before the track fades out on a Fisher Price organ wig out and playful harmonies.
While “If it’s true’ is more saccharine 60s chamber pop, ‘I’m On My Way’ is world-weary and fragile. “I tried to be brooding and dark but it all fell through” Kaplan murmurs on the latter while gentle tablas underline a romantic swell to the music that peaks with a lilting, almost Latin guitar solo. This consistent sequence of delicate melodiousness continues with the perfect Belle & Sebastian pop of ‘When it’s Dark’ and dreamily mournful ‘All Your Secrets’, the latter’s ‘do-do do-do’ harmonies echoed by a poignantly fragile organ.
The final two tracks are longer, more impressionistic pieces. ‘More Stars Than There Are in Heaven’ is the stauncher of the two, building on fuzzy, low end guitars and repeated, interlocking harmonies (“We’ll walk hand in hand”). The tangled layers of guitar evolve and stretch out into an engaging and evocative epic – a warm blur of bleeding and receding shapes “right before your very eyes”.
Longer still ‘The Fireside’ is indeed the flickering grate of glowing embers the title promises, beginning with heavily reverbed acoustic guitar and ambient drones. Less linear than the preceding track, it very slowly gathers momentum with a little rhythmic strum about four minutes in, underpinning the track with (albeit meditative) purpose that peaks with a detached vocal.
A beguiling album full of rich musicianship and irresistable melodies that charm and haunt in equal measure, ‘Popular Songs’ will keep drawing you back for another listen.