Monday, January 28, 2013
Yo La Tengo: Fade (2013)
That the quickest Yo La Tengo album in nearly two decades is also the most meditative and subtle pretty much ever is the kind of giddy irony that works for the band that never wants anyone to have any clue of what they're doing next. Way back when I reviewed Popular Songs here, I predicted that the only way the Band That Can Do Anything (and would shortly thereafter prove my point by going on a tour that involved them, among other things, acting out a Judge Judy episode on stage) could really progress at this point was to go full-bore on tightly constructed pop music, because my feeling was that with their 2009 record they'd come as close as they ever had to doing something that was somewhat expected of them. I was partially right, anyway, and correctly surmised that the band's time with longtime producer Roger Moutenot was nearing its end (for the moment), as it happens replaced by John McEntire of Tortoise and the Sea & Cake, but I missed the point. That is that Yo La Tengo's impression of a pop record is still different from anyone else's. The order of the day on their thirteenth (!) album can be summed up thusly: lushness, intimacy, and concision. All three are, in this form at least, new for this band. Presumably I don't have to tell you that Yo La Tengo at this point have a last-band-standing mythology working in their favor, particularly with the symbolic loss last year of Sonic Youth, R.E.M. the year before. In turn I don't have to tell you that a band that formed in 1984 finding new definitions of anything is a rock & roll miracle of a kind. Nor do I have to tell you I think this is pretty much the best band in the world, still, and yet I'm surprising myself by how interesting and surprising I find the new direction they've taken here.
I often wonder what would happen if you could somehow interact with circa-1987 Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan and find out what they'd think of Yo La Tengo now. YLT today seems so far flung from the noisy folk-rock outfit of nearly three decades ago; as is often stated, the Yo La Tengo aesthetic we associate so strongly with the band was affixed to them with the release of Painful, wherein Ira lowered his voice, the guitars acquired a drone, and the songs took a mighty step forward. It was their first Matador album, the first album in which bassist James McNew participated extensively in rehearsals and composition (he's on May I Sing with Me but came aboard midway through the process), and most importantly to us here, their first with Moutenot. The band has played down their break with the longtime producer and I see no reason to doubt their word that there's nothing acrimonious about his absence, but its effect on their music feels more significant than they're letting on. Moutenot oversaw the band's recorded work as they achieved what is, to me at least, a kind of absolute rock band perfection. The run of albums from Electr-o-Pura through I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is, to my knowledge, unsurpassed as five-in-a-row masterpieces go. Certainly in indie rock, and I'd say in rock music as a whole if I didn't think you people would yell at me.
Replacing Moutenot could just be a symbolic leap out of a slight rut, much as recording Popular Songs in Hoboken instead of Nashville may have been. There are far clearer musical consequences to this choice, however. They were evident as soon as "Before We Run" was issued as the first true preview track ("Stupid Things" had received a 12" release but was an alternate take), awash in arena rock drums, sadly wheezing horns, and a towering arrangement. I wasn't disappointed by Popular Songs, but it felt like the first YLT record since the Matador move that wasn't a radical departure from its predecessor; I was fine with this, actually, because I could've contended with another lifetime of records as well-written and charming as Popular Songs, which stuck with the Beat Your Ass conceit of a mixtape crawl through someone's obscure record collection, a set of songs that sounded so different from one another as to be virtually unrecognizable as the same band. They would balk at this, of course, even though I consider it a virtue they share with just a handful of other artists (the Clash and the Beatles, for starters) -- McNew has said that whenever they're playing together, it sounds to him like Yo La Tengo.
With Fade now before us, we can pick out a few things that point the way forward on Popular Songs -- Richard Evans' string arrangements were a radical addition that provided for a defiantly new dimension in "Here to Fall" and "If It's True"; an increasing fearlessness toward pop bliss, resisting all impulse to drench "I'm on My Way" and "When It's Dark" in any kind of distancing feedback or even so much as a wild guitar solo, permeated not just Popular Songs but portions of Beat Your Ass ("Beanbag Chair," "Mr. Tough"). Most interesting of all is the new resistance to the jumbled pop-shuffle madness that once seemed to drive the sequencing of the band's records. Popular Songs divided itself cleanly between carefully composed tunes on sides one and two, sprawling meditation and fury on three and four. Fade takes an analogous key from the Beach Boys' album Today!: the (sort-of) rockers on side one, the ballads on side two, and hey, a Yo La Tengo album that fits on one slab on vinyl!
The left turn comes instead at the way the band now delivers these sounds, the quietest possible staredown at any sense of stagnation. It's not just the new producer that makes you think of Painful here; there's a deliberate sense of turnaround in the way these songs are written, sung and arranged. Ira says that the band talked him out of a complete change in his vocal style, but the fact that he had an impulse to try such a thing says a great deal; his singing changed completely between May I Sing with Me and Painful, with his nasal scream of "Mushroom Cloud of Hiss" yore never to be heard again. Now he transitions from the speaking-voice mumble and squinty falsetto of "The Crying of Lot G" and "Here to Fall" to a voice that is genuinely, unaffectedly gentle and lilting, even on the fast ones. It's most immediately evident on the sealed-off funk of "Well You Better," which has him bopping along fearlessly until reaching into an upper register for a "please make up your mind" refrain that's frayed with need and desire, emotions he's previously communicated best on nearly spoken word pieces like "My Heart's Reflection" and "Don't Have to Be So Sad."
Kaplan is 56 years old, approximately the same age as Paul McCartney when he recorded, uh, Flaming Pie (remember that one?). But he is stretching himself, perhaps as never before. Hear it again on "Is That Enough" -- the first time he sings the line "If that matters, it's to very few," the warmth that exudes from him is such that you can hear him cracking a smile. "I'll Be Around" is not the Spinners song, which they've now taken to covering on stage, but Kaplan's shyly loving croon is quite possibly his best and most emotional vocal performance ever. Hubley sings three cuts this time out and while "Before We Run" is already proving far stronger live than on record, as she fastens herself to its hooks and valleys, on "Cornelia and Jane" she nearly matches her husband's peak on the prior song, hitting a high note that as of 2000 she wasn't daring to attempt. So can it be that much as Painful was an album about lowering one's head and learning how to sing in a mutter, Fade is about self-exposure?
Either way, the music calls back just as readily to Painful in both its transitional implications and its completeness unto itself. Several YLT albums have featured a consistent enough production style, though few of them have sounded this technically polished, with both And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Summer Sun alienating a few fans with their whisper-quiet sonics. Fade is more varied than those records in composition style, but its low background buzz and hum is a close match for Painful's nocturnal squall, lending this the distinction of being the band's most effortlessly cohesive recording since 1993, and that's despite its absurd traversing from anthemic calling-card to Motown soul to Stax funk to indie hiss to krautrock (that's just the first half). After living with the record for several months and now hearing it laid out on LP, the portions that seemed slow or perhaps too ponderously distant have revealed themselves gradually, have snuck up on me, until I see this as not just an immense improvement on Popular (which, again, I loved) but as the most significant change of pace for this band in years.
The songs, only one of which even approaches seven minutes: Opening immediate signature tune "Ohm" bursts out and quite deliberately casts the rest of the album in its shadow; the communal vocals, the twisting melody, and the sense of celebration despite the resigned words being sung -- all gorgeous, and one of the best things they've ever recorded. The catchiness and pop purity of "Is That Enough" and from-the-"Sugarcube"-school "Paddle Forward" are enhanced by familiarity, especially the former, whose ringing guitar, buzzing hook, and wound-up girl-group peppiness compress the adventures of PopSongs into a single delectable cut. "Well You Better" is the point at which McEntire most clearly asserts himself, amping up the organ and the tricky rhythm track and separating them to the point of disorientation, near-claustrophobia, and immensely pleasurable R&B minimalism. Something else new -- the romantically precise guitar line on "Stupid Things" and the same song's viciously persistent beat, all quite noisy and charged but melding beautifully together into a loving quiet storm of aggro-loverboy beats and singing. Their work's never been so beautiful, and then you get to the second half.
As on Painful, side two finds Yo La Tengo fully enveloping themselves in sound, arguably at the expense of distinctive tunes. But that's only how it seems at first. I admit that it was so long before I warmed to "Two Trains" and its strange "big" sound and barely-perceptible rhythm that I may as well say I didn't, but I do now find it an immersive and autumnal and all that sort of introspective stuff. "The Point of It" scores for me on double-tracking and (stunning) lyrics alone, and "Before We Run" has set me agog now with its final minute of dropout-into-horns and "Nowhere Near"-style rebuild, all with a sense of coming up for air. But the key to this half and really to the entire album is in "I'll Be Around" and "Cornelia and Jane." They're both beautiful, as we've mentioned. The delicate guitars of "Around" are like nothing we've heard from this band, signaling a willingness to cop to comfortable pretty just as much as "Mr. Tough" was a surrender to pop impulse. Somewhere in the midst of these two songs, time seems to sort of stop for a bit, and "Cornelia and Jane" has an expansive heaviness to match McNew's "Black Flowers," but what's remarkable is that all its brass and baroque can't even match the lushness Georgia alone provides in her singing.
But the softness of these songs and Fade overall is given much of its power by the album's thematic fixations, which verbally emit that same sense of warmth that's ever-increasingly become a primary reason for the size of this particular band's cult and its devotion. In 2011, Ira Kaplan suffered an apparently major health scare, the nature of which has (quite understandably) never been publicly disclosed. The ordinarily volatile guitarist was forced to spend a few shows sitting down, graciously emailing fans warning them not to expect the typical semi-psychotic strangling of guitars during "I Heard You Looking" and "Blue Line Swinger." There's no way for us to know if this incident had any effect on Fade's lyrics -- it's none of our business, even -- but it's certainly hard to imagine that it didn't. Hubley's "Cornelia & Jane" (possibly named for couple of a streets in Greenwich Village) in particular has the pensive agony of a fretful partner (Kaplan wrote all but one lyric on Fade but hasn't indicated which isn't his, so I could easily be offbase): "Too many sirens, they keep you up at night / Sit back and hold your ears / How will we hold back our tears?" and "How can we hold onto you?"
And gradually, the rest of the words fall into place. Read "Ohm" as philosophy of life, acceptance of death, acknowledgement of the series of moments that's really all we get: "But nothing ever stays the same / Nothing's explained / The higher we go, the longer we fly / 'Cause this is it for all we know / So say goodnight to me / And lose no more time / Resisting the flow." And then "The Point of It," either the sardonic response to being a creatively active band with potential years still ahead of it that's had a paper gravestone of a biography now penned about it, or more importantly, the indicator of this couple and this band's shaky but assured contentment as they come to terms with the fact of aging: "Say that we’re afraid / Say the night is close / 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 loved." And as the serious emotional range and depth of all this hits you, all you can think is: they can't be here forever. I can only speak for myself here -- I dunno what I will do without them. But that's not, as the song goes, the point either. The point is we're all getting old, closer to death, closer to our own slow fade, and that's why we wake up in the morning. I'm surprised by how much I suddenly find that I needed to hear that at this point in my life.
Popular Songs (2009)
Stupid Things EP (2012)