It’s fun putting on headphones for the first listening of a Yo La Tengo record because it’s almost like a book you’ve never read, a movie you don’t know the ending of. Because… how can they skillfully write so many different styles and still sound so undeniably characteristic throughout their career? Not knowing what to expect from Yo La Tengo, and knowing it will hit the spot as you release your hands from your iPod, is part of their intrigue and probably one of the reasons they are celebrated as a point of reference for the American underground scene for 20 years now. Sometimes they’re twentysomethings who appear to have just brought home their first overdrive pedal to gig with in, the now landmark, Hoboken venue Maxwell’s. Sometimes they’re reverb laden indie darlings with as much acoustic orchestration as you could pack into a trio, or perhaps they’ll employ dense ambience over small kit percussion. All instantly recognizable.
YLT’s story is one of not being able to be pigeonholed into one American music movement because, frankly, they weren’t young enough for hardcore, old enough for American folk revival, sexy enough for New Wave, or bombastic enough for 80’s synth and MTV. Some early accounts indicate they barely even had a handle on their instruments on stage most times. But their music is strong in ideals with a flush internal sense of the sound they aim for. So, they continued on as an underground work horse, making music that is never as virtuosic as it is timeless in its taste. Making music that seemed to speak to people in a way that has always garnered a sense of wisdom and gathers more admiration with each passing year they patiently put out another record. Their newest album Fade is another strong effort and among the most uniform in presentation for the modest, emotive, self-assured indie rock band.
The record begins with a duet vocal harmony between Ira Kaplan (guitar, vocals) and Georgia Hubley (drums, vocals) on “Ohm” that shuffles over subdued over-driven guitar, shakers, basic kit, and these excellent hand claps. This song is typical catchy fare for the band which sets a positive mood and climaxes with a classic guitar solo by Kaplan segueing into the singable final chorus. The record then moves into the more reflective sound of “Is That Enough” and basically sounds like a dreamy Sunday morning with a wonderful string line that caught this listener by surprise. The record then starts to take on a more subdued sound than a large section of the band’s previous releases. The band moves into one of the catchiest song on the record with “Well You Better” employing a whimsical keyboard melody line and a little grit on Kaplan’s vocal take. “Paddle Forward” returns to the duetting vocals and draws the listener’s attention away from our cold, influenza infested winter as they whisk us away to the open space of the wide open ocean.
Yo La Tengo’s “Before We Run”
The record decidedly sidetracks with “Stupid Things” as James McNew (bass) lays down a bitchin’ fuzzed out staccato D# over which Kaplan plays a sweet, patient guitar lead. This contrast gives the sense of Kaplan playing to his heart’s content in contrast to rhythm but he delicately and skillfully brings the guitar line into rhythm just in time for the vocals to arise. This maneuver of syncopation converging into the pocket has served YLT well, whether it be softer indie sounds or heavy over-driven rock drones like (ie. their epic tune “Pass the Hatchet, I think I’m Goodkind” from their excellent rock infused I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass). When synth flutes arrive in the chorus the song takes off, the strongest on the record by then.
But more awaits the listener. Not to be mistaken for previous YLT records, in which songs can have no particular linked style, the band returns to its more straight ahead indie rock motif with the acoustic guitar fingerpicked “I’ll Be Around.” This is furthered by the first Hubley led vocal track on “Cornelia and Jane.” he horns on this track are sublime. “Two Trains” has a restrained patience to it, shoegazing meets indie rock. Penultimate track “The Point of It” returns to straight ahead indie rock with a catchy dancing trio of chords that bookend Kaplan’s vocals.
The veteran band saved the best for last on this record. On “Before We Run,” Hubley arrives with hushed secretive vocals over ambient fuzz and acoustic guitar picking with “Hold me in your arms / be still, be there / I’ll hold you in mine / before we run” and leads the listener to stop whatever they’re doing and instantly start staring out the window. This song is a longing for peace, for open spaces, for lovers dancing arm in arm, wine drinking, music listening, and self-reflection. Cornet, trombone and baritone horn play sustained low register chords over heralding strings while bright guitar chords intermittently rush up to meet you and then fall back out to the ocean with the tide. This waveform instrumental section plods on patiently, knowingly, and is so necessary to allow the listener’s mind to wander and earnestly put things in perspective. The feeling is one of empowerment and righteousness, truly a phenomenal end to a generally mellow record by YLT standards.
Fade arrives at the beginning of a new year, during a time of turbulence and dissatisfaction in many ways for many people. Culture, society’s manifestation of expression, is reflective of the times and the people who find it within themselves to have a voice. How they use their voice is up to no one but them, and finding the right “words” is all the power in the world to be heard. Yo La Tengo is a band that has used many voices and has garnered the prestige of a culturally iconic band that one could argue essentially pioneered American indie rock, a quintessentially difficult to describe genre due to its vastness. By putting out such a coherent and focused record of very subdued emotional tones, they seem to be saying “Everyone… take time. Be at peace. Find satisfaction. Carry on.” The colors in this record are so soothing, so timeless. Listen as you ride from Hoboken into NYC, as you help a stranger, as you fly to your next job interview, as you really examine yourself in this new year and be happy that, if all things aren’t winning figures these days, at least there are vibrant colors and a vibrant artistic presence for everyone to use to recharge. Let the colors wash over you, before you run.
Written by Case Newsom
OurVinyl | Contributor
[To pre-order/purchase this record on iTunes click here]