Album Review: Yo La Tengo – Popular Songs

by Dakin Hardwick on September 11, 2009

I know a guy that can fix that cassette

I know a guy that can fix that cassette

I am going to let you in on a little secret- I have never heard Yo La Tengo before. I love the indie rock, and I have even worked at a record store (or 5). I understand who they are, and I understand the effect they have had on society. I know that every new record store employee will file them in the Spanish-language section. (Once I had a fellow employee bring me the Yo La Tengo section from rock and let me know that somebody was misfiling them) They are a band that has been through a lot, even overcoming this great tragedy!

So this is my virginal Yo La Tengo listening, and it’s their 12th studio record. They released their first album in 1986, putting them years ahead of the current indie rock movement. I was expecting something along the lines of Pavement or Sonic Youth, but I was definitely wrong.

The album opens up with a bit of wah’d out guitar playing erratically, then drums kick in with some electric piano and a bright, vibrant string section. This is certainly not lo-fi guitar rock. In fact, this is some of the cleanest production I have ever heard on record in any genre of music. The song is called “Here To Fall,” and it’s a pleasant bit of psychedelic pop. The songs is very bright, and the different instruments swim around each other in a way that can only be described as pleasant. This track reminds me of Air, if they tried to be a traditional rock band.

The next song is called “Avalon or Something.” The singer changed. This time it’s a woman. This song has a lot of reverb going, but aside from that, relies less on studio trickery than the first track. This song could have been a lost Sundays song. Still bright, it looks like this is a rare rock record where nearly every song is written in a major key.

The next song, “By Two’s,” is a somber affair. The vocals are female, and understated. I don’t hear any guitar, and most of the drums sound like they are synthetic. This song is what I thought trip-hop was.

So, at this point I think I get what Yo La Tengo is. They do pop songs that wouldn’t sound out of place on one of the Ultra.Lounge compilations that were popular in the early part of the decade. Then track four kicks in. It’s a song called “Nothing To Hide.” The guitars kick in fast and fuzzy. The song is short, only about 2 minutes long, and it sounds like surfy punk rock. Nobody is screaming, but things are still a fair but more aggressive than before. The next portion of the record takes you on a journey through ? & The Mysterians-esque frat rock, to Belle & Sebastian meets Beach Boys well produced harmonies. The strings come back for “If It’s True,” and it almost sounds like Phil Spector produced it between trials.

Starting at track seven, a song called “I’m On My Way,” we move in to folk rock territory. It seems we have a band that wants to do it all, and on this record, they do. Paul Simon and Big Star begin to weave their way in to the later portion. Many of these songs would be lost on lesser musicians, but Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew all seem to know what they are doing. You know what the influences are, but they have given each song its own identity.

Track ten is a piece called “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven.” It begins with a flute. Then, about 45 seconds in, an electric guitar comes strumming in. Wordless vocals wrap around. The song feels very epic. When the album began, it felt very much like dawn: a vibrant and optimistic start. This song is the counterpoint, where everything is starting to wind down. This is the perfect way to end a body of work like this.

And that is the fatal flaw behind this record. If it was released as ten perfect tracks in a perfect order, such as this, I would call it a bonafide classic. But they didn’t stop there. Instead, they tack on two more songs that exceed the ten minute mark. The first is called “The Fireside.” And it just doesn’t go anywhere. It has the fun effects and some nicely strummed acoustic guitar, but I lost interest at minute two, and it keeps going on & on & on… I don’t understand why they kept this on the record.

This brings us to the last track, “And The Glitter Is Gone.” It starts out promising enough, with fuzzy guitars and a nice beat. It feels like they had the basics of a really good rock song, but instead it’s over fifteen minutes of the exact same thing. It feels like the indie-rock Joe Satriani- all sorts of riffing and wanking, but it doesn’t really go anywhere.

So, for the first 10 tracks, I give this record an A+, but for the last two songs, which comprise nearly half an hour’s worth of music, I give it an F. But, since most early records were only 45 minutes long, I say we have a great LP for you that you will never need to flip over. (Well, you will never need to put on the second record, at least.)

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{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Dakin Hardwick September 11, 2009 at 3:58 pm

As you can tell, I really liked this record. Do any Yo La Tengo fans that read this have any suggestions for me?

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Vanessa Romero September 11, 2009 at 4:05 pm

If you ever see them live, wear a hardhat in case of a ceiling collapse?

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caroline September 11, 2009 at 4:35 pm

Ha! That Onion article totally describes our lives.

I saw/heard Yo La Tengo for the first time at SXSW 2008. For a band that I’ve heard about for forever in such a glorified light, I was not impressed. Too ‘jammy” for my tastes.

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Tony Butterworth September 13, 2009 at 12:47 am

As you know I couldn’t review this because I didn’t like it at all, and I had also never listened to their music before.

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