This year (2014) marks Yo La Tengo’s 30th anniversary, and they’re celebrating it by reissuing their sixth album, Painful, released nearly a decade into their career. The cardigan-cozy sound of the record effectively established Yo La Tengo as indie rock’s great romantics, and featured a couple of significant firsts for the trio.
There’s a riot going on. You don’t need me, or Yo La Tengo, to tell you that. These are dark times, in our heads as much as in the streets. It’s easy to lose contact with the ground. Confusion and anxiety intrude into daily life and cause you to lose your compass. There are times that call for anthems, something to lift you out of your slump and put fire in your feet. And sometimes what is needed is a balm, a sound that will wrap around you and work out the knots in your neck.
After the elegant, introspective romantic narratives of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and the beautifully crafted but restrained pop textures of Summer Sun, it was hard not to wonder if Yo La Tengo was ever going to turn up the amps and let Ira Kaplan go nuts on guitar again. For more than a few fans "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," the opening cut from YLT's 2006 album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, will feel like the reassuring sound of a homecoming – ten minutes of noisy six-string freak-out, with James McNew's thick, malleable basslines and Georgia Hubley's simple but subtly funky drumming providing a rock-solid framework for Kaplan's enthusiastic fret abuse.
New Jersey indie rockers Yo La Tengo had already been slowly growing into their sound for over a decade by the 1997 release of their revelational eighth album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Their guitar-based pop was steadily finding its legs before this, as the band moved toward increasingly dreamy productions on albums like Painful and Electr-O-Pura. The 16 tracks that made up the ambitious and epic I Can Hear the Heart found the group stretching out their whispery vocals and deceptively straightforward pop approach to encompass a variety of unexpected styles. This meant softly wandering guitars and steadfast drums twisted out of their indie rock trappings and morphed into adventurous Krautrock jams like "Spec Bebop," haunting, harmony-driven psych-folk like "We're an American Band," and even a playfully naive take on bossa nova with "Center of Gravity." As for the blissed-out melodic noise pop Yo La Tengo had been working on for the majority of their existence, this was one of the band's finest hours.
Two records now available as a single CD, these really show off Yo La Tengo's ability to create musical extremes. New Wave Hot Dogs has the firm pop sense and strong songwriting of the debut, but President Yo La Tengo offers up a little more free-form skronk in the ten-minute live version of "The Evil That Men Do," a gloriously squalling, over-the-top crash-and-bash session which proves how liberating and fun sonic dissonance can be. Just in case you don't like that sort of thing, "Evil" also shows up as a straight-ahead folk-rock track. This is a great collection of material that, as well as anything else they have recorded, gets to the heart of what makes this band tick.
After years as one of indie rock's standard-bearing groups, Yo La Tengo surpasses itself with And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. A culturally literate, emotionally rich album, on songs like "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House," "The Crying of Lot G," and "The Last Days of Disco," it alludes to The Simpsons, enigmatic author Thomas Pynchon and independent films while exploring the comforting, confining, complex aspects of relationships. "Our Way to Fall" sets Ira Kaplan's recollection of falling in love to a dreamy, down-to-earth backdrop of gently brushed drums, luminous organs and vibes; "The Crying of Lot G" transforms the syrupy sweetness of '50s ballads into a monologue about a relationship's shortcomings.
Whether or not Yo La Tengo are being tongue in cheek with the title of their 14th album, Popular Songs does find Hoboken's finest embracing pop song structures with a renewed degree of enthusiasm – this isn't quite the Yo La Tengo "loaded with hits" album, but for a band that's shown an increasing willingness to explore the outer limits of its music in the studio, Popular Songs features nine tunes you can hum along with and sometimes even dance to. Those who got high marks in math will notice that Popular Songs has 12 selections, and as befits a band that covered George McCrae's "You Can Have It All," on the second half of this set YLT take the opportunity to stretch out and invite the spirit for a while – the total time of the first nine tracks on Popular Songs is roughly the same as the last three, which should tell you something about the album's dual nature.
At album number 13, Yo La Tengo are an institution unto themselves, having perfected their craft of slow-burning, unassumingly insular indie rock in incremental baby steps since their formation in 1984. Almost three decades of building a language of wistfully melodic guitar rock without becoming redundant is no small feat, and Fade rises to the unique challenge by striking a middle ground between new territory and recalling YLT's finest hours. Fade is the first album for the band not recorded with producer Roger Moutenot, who had worked with the group on everything they put to tape since their 1993 breakthrough, Painful.
These days, every band seems eager to honor the anniversary of one of its landmark albums, usually in the form of a concert tour or an expanded reissue, and even Yo La Tengo have gotten into the act – a quarter century after they released their endlessly charming 1990 LP Fakebook, in which they covered a handful of their favorite songs and reworked a few of their own numbers in semi-acoustic fashion, YLT have recorded what amounts to a sequel, 2015's Stuff Like That There. Just like a sequel to a 1980s horror movie, Stuff Like That There follows the template of the original as closely as possible – there are two new songs, three remakes from the YLT back catalog, and nine covers, which range from the instantly recognizable (Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," inspired by Al Green's version) to the thoroughly obscure (unless you're a Hoboken pop obsessive or a James McNew completist, "Automatic Doom" by the Special Pillows is probably not on your hit parade).