Review: Yo La Tengo – Fade
Published on January 16th, 2013 | Theo Gorst
Yo La Tengo’s minimal yet powerful aesthetic was portrayed most overtly on the sleeve to their 2001 masterpiece And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. The LP’s cover depicts a suburban street bathed in an eerie evening glow, an uncertain smoke hovering over a well-lit bungalow, a subtle image juxtaposing the unknown and the domesticated. The cover art works as an apt metaphor for the music the band have produced for the last two decades: sweet melodies coated in the threatening menace of Ira Kaplan’s guitar. Comforting pop songs are never merely one dimensional, with layers of distortion opposing the tenderness and honesty that characterises any YLT track.
The disconnect that the Hoboken trio have capitalised upon over their last eight LPs (those made since James McNew joined permanently) remains present on Fade. Second track “Is That Enough” presents Kaplan’s soothing vocals melodically narrating over swelling violins, and yet in spite of the traditional structure of this pretty pop song, the buzz of distortion remains. Its effects are entirely charming; the ever-present hiss denotes a simplicity in recording and lends the track an uncertain air. Career stability has been the band’s speciality, be that through Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s marriage, a lack of egos or the consistency of their output, and yet in spite of this there’s an instability to “Is That Enough” that ensures the listener never grows complacent.
Strings are also used to great effect on what is the album’s most immediately striking track, “Stupid Things”. A guitar is plucked tentatively before being joined by McNew’s propulsive bass line, and the momentum continues to develop when Hubley’s subtle drum beat reinforces the solidity of the rhythm section. The track’s menacing bass recalls “Flying Lessons (Hot Chicken #1)” from Yo La Tengo’s 1995 album Electr-O-Pura; however, whereas that track rose magnificently into a Sonic Youth-esque frenzy, here preconceptions are subverted as Kaplan’s vocals gently rise until strings once again emphasise the beauty of the track’s sentiment: “I always know that when we wake up you’re mine”.
Elsewhere the lo-fi indie rock numbers and folk songs channelling the fading of day into night are also present and accounted for. Though these components characterise all of the band’s releases, there’s nothing here that feels like Yo La Tengo by numbers. Rather, each is a delight, each one different from those that have gone before. “Paddle Forward” sees Kaplan’s manic fretwork set against Hubley’s detached vocals, while “I’ll Be Around” includes beautiful Spanish guitars and a subdued vocal that work as an advance on And Then Nothing’s … cover, depicting comfort being taken from the calm of the evening. Label mates Belle and Sebastian once sang “Pure easy listening, settle down / On the pillow soft when they’ve all gone home“; Yo La Tengo perfectly articulate this theme.
Were this a debut LP, blogs would be formed, letters written and T-shirts printed out of adulation, yet it’s almost as if adding another terrific record to a formidable back catalogue works against the group, insomuch as it could appear daunting to the uninitiated. To quote “Is That Enough”, “it’s sad but not untrue” that yet another remarkable album, released with minimal fuss and press, will do little to draw in new fans. It’s a great shame tracks like “Ohm” and “Before We Run” won’t rule the airwaves, but then were Yo La Tengo to inhabit a more populist sphere then perhaps their defining idiosyncrasies would be less pronounced. Whether it’s enacting Seinfeld episodes before shows, sound-tracking science documentaries or simply recording beautiful, flawless albums, it’s clear Yo La Tengo defiantly play by their own rules; and when those rules are conducive to results as stunning as “Cornelia and Jane”, it’s hard to protest.
While Kaplan’s infamous guitar work is the band’s most recognisable feature, side 2 of the record includes a greater volume of ambient tracks, the sort that characterised 2003’s Summer Sun. Unlike on that LP, however, there’s an abundance of variation and unexpected quirks – the programmed percussion on “Two Trains” being one such example – that perfectly counters Kaplan’s arpeggios and prevents the record from ever veering into ‘safe’ territory. Whilst Fade‘s focus on softer sonics is perhaps an indication of the band mellowing with age, the transaction is shown to have manifested itself gracefully.
The road to a lasting career in indie-rock is scattered with the corpses of former contemporaries: Sonic Youth split, Pavement reformed and subsequently remembered why they split, and Smashing Pumpkins disintegrated into a self-parodying mess, all signs of ’90s indie-rock fading into cultural insignificance. Yo La Tengo however look no closer to fading than they do to making a bad record.
Rocksucker says: Four and a Half Quails out of Five!
Fade is out now on Matador. For more information, please visit www.yolatengo.com