Monday 14 September 2009

Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

Until now Yo La Tengo have been a band I have often heard in the background at someone else's house, the kind of ambient, dreamy sound that provides a nice underscore to your evening without demanding too much of your attention. The title of their new album hints at a far more conventional sound and whilst there are certainly some finely crafted pop songs the last three tracks account for half of the album's length, extended numbers that have the air of jamming sessions we have become privy to. But we'll get there in a moment.

Here To Fall opens proceedings with deceptively electronic sounds, deceptive because they are soon caught up in swirling strings, reverb-ed keyboards and a funky bass (sounding a bit like David Holmes work). Then we have the straight-up 60's pop of Avalon Or Someone Very Similar, allowing Georgia Hubley's soft vocals to float up high, and just towards the end a note is introduced on the keyboard which runs counter to the melody, pleasingly atonal and subtle preparation for the darker atmosphere of By Two's which is pleasingly hypnotic. The pace suddenly picks up with the fuzzy guitars of Nothing To Hide before the rug is pulled from under your feet by the comic Periodically Double Or Triple. 'Never read Proust/Seems a little too long' begins Ira Kaplan as a funky bass once again bounces the track along with Hammond organ and cute backing vocals.

Kaplan and Hubley finally come together properly on If It's True which again sounds like a cute duet from another era, the harmonies and strings similar to those heard on tracks by Belle and Sebastian. There is a far more romantic tone to I'm On My Way, the track breaking down halfway for an acoustic guitar solo which sounds like something you might hear being used as a serenading tool in a restaurant. The well crafted melodies and soft vocals continue on the next couple of tracks and then we reach the first of the album's longer numbers. More Stars Than There Are In Heaven begins slowly, building strummed guitars and vocal layers, 'We'll walk hand in hand' the voices combine to announce and as the track develops with detail added by further guitars and voices there is a clever combination of epic sound and intimacy, a bit like voices and instruments joining together around a campfire. In fact that intimacy is also there on the album's two biggies which feel more like eavesdropped jams rather than over-produced album closers.

My mention of the campfire above was thought up before I realised that the penultimate track was called The Fireside. Redolent of the extended soundscapes of Papa M it is a slow track with echoing acoustic guitars and other treated sounds which manages to be repetitive without being boring. And The Glitter Is Gone brings things to a close with an amp-kicking, guitar smashing finale. Fuzzy guitars, feedback, screeching; it's all there. For just over quarter of an hour. In fact there's a danger that these last three tracks are a bit on the indulgent side but as someone who's been listening to this as I walk, they have been providing an interesting soundtrack.

Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have been pleasing critics and listeners alike for over 20 years together and this is the first album of theirs that I have properly listened to. Personally, I enjoyed the funky guitars and cinematic strings but there's a fair bit of variety in there to keep a wide range of tastes entertained. I guess I shouldn't just relegate them to the background.


Rob 14 September 2009 at 09:30  

This takes me back! There was a period of about six months in the late nineties when I can Hear the Heart Beating as One was never off my stereo. Worth tracking down if you get the chance.

bobblog 14 September 2009 at 12:53  

Yeah I agree there - I can Hear the Heart Beating as one is the best introduction to this lovely group.

Popular Songs is quite good but YLT have achieved much better.

James Dalrymple 3 October 2009 at 10:47  

Hi William,

Apologies for the radio silence. I'm glad you liked this record. I believe congratulations are in order, too - well done. A combination of fatherhood and the relative success of my new site for my home town (Grenoble Life) have somewhat curtailed my music reviewing. Please let me know what other big recommendations you have. I'm currently listening to the Xx, and Volcano Choir, but both are taking longer to bed in than recent favourites like this and Wild Beasts.

William Rycroft 3 October 2009 at 10:59  

I had a listen The xx but it didn't get me going enough to wrote a review, especially at what is a busy time baby wise (thanks for congratulations, although I did the easy part to be fair!).

I'd really recommend Girls debut album which I'll review as soon as I can grab the time. A really exciting, 60's infused, rock-pop wonder...

bobblog 3 October 2009 at 14:10  

The Girls album is very good - it's a lot of fun.

At the mo i'm listening to the new Taken By Trees album, which excellent. There's an Animal Collective cover (My Girls, here retitled My Boys)and Noah Lennox shows up as well (on the track Anna)

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