It might be better to burn out than it is to fade away, but what if your ambition is continuity?
Yo La Tengo is a New York (by way of Hoboken) institution, celebrating its 25th year of making music. The reasons the band has outlasted many of its indie peers are many, but most have to do with a careful balance of novelty and consistency.
Never cohering to a scene or sound has been advantageous for Yo La Tengo, though the trio’s hallmarks—hushed brokenhearted pop and elegiac swells of feedbacky reckoning—appear on nearly every album; kind reminders that it’s still Yo La Tengo, shifting while staying in the same place. A nice trick. 1993’s Painful and 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One are the epochal albums. But the last two, 2003’s Summer Sun and 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, have proven that, like fellow survivors Sonic Youth, the band is making some of the most vital, assured and arresting music of its career.
Earlier this month the band released its sixteenth album, the cheekily-titled, Popular Songs. It’s cheeky because while the band sees consistent sales that would be the envy of most indie rock outfits (75,000 to 125,000 for the last few records), its popularity is sculpted not from overwrought posturing, obsessive audio tinkering or playing to any particular audience, but from simply making the records the band wants to hear.
“As simplistic as it sounds, we just kept working for ourselves and writing songs to please ourselves and each other,” James McNew, Yo La Tengo’s bassist, told The Observer. “Making records that we thought were good. We didn’t set out to recruit new fans, but that’s worked for us. We just keep doing what feels right.”
And what the band wants to hear has been all over the place, a wide array of sounds, usually tending back toward swirling, feedbacky laments, with stops along the way for everything from funk meltdowns to sugary pop ditties. The new album is a microcosm of the pattern. It opens with a trio of pop tunes taking the band down numerous stylistic paths, from the orchestral-tinged, soundtrack-ready opener to sunny psych freakouts and on to pulsing, keyboard-drone-driven rumblers. The album gets on more familiar poppy ground through the noisy drive of “Nothing to Hide,” and on through the neat and cute tunes, “When It’s Dark” and “I’m On My Way.” Later, things take a funkier turn, the band getting loose on some organ-driven soul numbers with “Periodically Double or Triple” and “If It’s True.” Then another trio strikes both familiar and unexpected chords; three longer pieces, around ten minutes apiece; jams that evolve dreamlike and give the band space to communicate as slowly, softly, fiercely, or noisily as it wants.
“There’s very little that we think of big-picture-wise while we’re making a record,” said Mr. McNew. “Rarely do we think beyond what we’re doing at the moment. I’m sure [the anniversary has] kinda been in our heads this year, a little. But still, we’re not really focusing on celebrating ourselves too much. But it was kind of accidental, almost as if we made a concept record completely in reverse. If you put all those things together you can put together some really strong messages, but we didn’t have any of that in mind.”
And there you have Yo La Tengo. All over the place, yet strangely, comfortingly familiar all the while. It could come from singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan’s onetime métier—music journalist. But more likely it comes from a very genuine collective mania about music. Mr. Kaplan, his wife Georgia Hubley (she plays drums and sings), and Mr. McNew (he sings too, very sweetly, sometimes) share a collective interest to the point of preoccupation with music, television, baseball and culture. It rarely bleeds through in the band’s lyrics, which tend to range from foreboding to melancholic, but always stick to rough narratives of love, loss and longing.
The cultural obsessions come through in the work Yo La Tengo does in between proper albums, keeping themselves exceedingly busy. This year, in addition to Popular Songs, the band released an album under the name Condo Fucks, playing covers in the guise of a mythical more-indie-than-thou band; wrote and performed the soundtrack to film Adventureland; contributed songs to a clutch of compilations; and played a spate of all-acoustic concerts known as the “The Freewheeling Yo La Tengo Tour.” They frequently perform cover songs on Jersey City’s 91.1 WFMU, and have a long-running charity Hannukah residency at Maxwell’s in Hoboken. They recorded a version of the Simpsons’ theme song and played on Gilmore Girls. Before Adventureland, they scored other films, including Junebug and Old Joy. Yet Mr. McNew is quick to fend off the idea that the band may be cashing in.