Yo La Tengo
Yo La Tengo (YLT) loves popular music. During its 25-year-long career, it’s written 216 original songs and released nearly 100 covers. Its nearly encyclopedic knowledge of pop-music history, from the bourgeois to the absurd, is one of its defining features. In its latest venture, Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo manages to corral that knowledge into a cohesive statement, relentlessly rediscovering the history of pop music and rewriting it in their image. Yo La Tengo wants to remind us of the days in which pop music wasn’t necessarily garbage, when melody and craftsmanship were the focus instead of Autotune and showmanship.
The album starts off with the largely self-referential “Here to Fall”, a six-minute rehashing of one of the band’s most-used themes. Much of Popular Songs, in fact, features the band diving not only into the popular canon but also into its own back catalogue as well. Many of the songs sound as if they were from one of YLT’s post-2001 era albums, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the perks of being in the same band for 25 years is that you have a really good idea of what your preferred sonic aesthetic is and know exactly how to create it. With Popular Songs, Yo La Tengo has proven that they know where they’ve been, and they know precisely where they want to be.
Because of YLT’s exceptionally diverse range of influences, Popular Songs has almost a mix-tape feel, bouncing from garage-rock to 60s-inspired harmonizing to walls of noise faster than many bands change keys. From the Motown-inspired “If It’s True” to the Nick Drake-imitation “I’m On My Way”, YLT mixes old sounds and old vibes into an album that is somehow incredibly fresh.
Although it does end with a group of three songs with a total running length close to the 37-minute mark, one of the strengths of the album is its brevity. Most of the songs are just the right length: instead of droning on and repeating a theme without reinventing it, Yo La Tengo keeps things refreshingly short. The highlights of this album are the three-minute gems, the quintessential ditties that sound familiar without becoming boring.
After all these years, Yo La Tengo is still quite the charmer. This institution of modern music is only getting better with age, and Popular Songs will take its place in the canon of popular music that its creators love so dearly.
(French Kiss; 2009)
Life-changing experiences are fairly rare. Most people manage to live their lives without the impact of some devastating and unexpected interpersonal tragedy. Despite that, the majority still tend to spin tiny dramas from their everyday ups and downs: the two-week relationship, the countdown to the last day of finals, getting wisdom teeth pulled, etc. At the same time, dramatic expression is becoming easier and easier to create. It’s as though literature became cinema became television became blogs became Twitter until a billion little nanodramas almost completely ate away your empathy and attention span.
Well, since you’ve built up a resistance to drama, it’s time to up the dose. Hospice is a nearly perfectly-crafted story about a couple who know that their love will inevitably end in an early death. The story starts from the point of view of an incredibly empathetic young man who becomes aware of that impending tragedy and journeys through rich soundscapes and uplifting pop tunes as he does all he can for the fleeting love of his life. The sense of selfless bravery and compassion evoked by Hospice is more than capable of summoning tears, and perhaps most surprisingly, is perfectly believable, for it was inspired by actual events.
The album is all encompassing in terms of its grip on the reality of love and loss. Desperation, anger, bargaining, acceptance, and reminiscence abound in Hospice, making it perhaps the most complete dramatic statement in popular music since the Arcade Fire’s Funeral.