Confession: I never really cared about Yo La Tengo, or their attempts at recreating The Velvet Underground: diffident singers, indie rock propulsion but never amounting to the same universe. Which is fine, because no one’s amounted to the same universe ever since, but I never heard reason in their music for a reason to write heart-snapping poems about coffee or whatever, not even when listening to the gorgeous nightscape of the first track of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside while with a girl that I had just met on a dating service while chilling on her mattress-turned-tent (her choice for soundtrack; I would’ve put on In a Silent Way).
But their albums in 2013 and 2015 – while critics naturally just forgot about them – are some of the best I’ve heard from them. Stuff Like That There was easier to explain: a modest(ly talented) group outsourced their tunes to other people (or younger versions of themselves) and what we received was one of their most tuneful, backed by harmonies so close you could swear they were happening next to you, and sung so beautifully that Georgia Hubley could make you feel whatever she was feeling at the time. I didn’t read a lot of reviews of it at the time, but I could guess most of them said the same thing: “collection of acoustic covers, this one worked, this one didn’t…7/10.”
This one’s less affecting, but no less effective; slightly louder but no less intimate: a collection of ten solid tunes that even takes a few chances along the way, sort of like the New Pornographers testing the waters with new sounds for 2014’s Brill Bruisers or the Mountain Goats expanding their sound with louder bass and horns on 2012’sTranscendental Youth – all three great albums by bands “past their prime.” Examine the bookends, both close to 7-minutes: “Ohm” strikes a single chord for 7 minutes but never gets boring because of the summer haze – it reminds me of a late-period Sonic Youth song in its capsulation of (the better bits) of suburban life. Meanwhile, “Before We Run” enters a gradual climax through orchestration that most any other indie act would have used bombastically but these guys manage to leverage meditatively. In less words, on that song, they go from pp to mp.
And most every song in between is a pleasure, even the relative filler of “Paddle Forward” serves a purpose by sounding like its name: the album’s loudest, nudging towards the next song (whereas previously they would have over-calculated and let this sort of thing run for longer than necessary). Meanwhile, the verses of “Is That Enough” are a write-off, but the pre-choruses, where Iba goes “All that matters” over a thin bed of backing vocals provided by Hubley are lovely, as are the actual choruses, where a string line comes to play counterpoint. Both “Well You Better” and “Stupid Things” start great and get even better once the actual “song” starts; the heavy syncopation of the former juxtaposed against Iba’s fragile singing and a 60s-indebted keyboard line adds a melodic fragment; the indelible guitar line of the latter; “Cornelia and Jane” has, in addition to Hubley’s voice that sounds like it could snap at the end of every line (and, as a result, snap your heart in two), this gorgeous moment where she sings “Too many sirens” and muted horns sonically paint that picture. And ace drumming throughout, from the eclectic choices that begin “Ohm” and “Two Trains” to the shakers that make themselves known for a single measure at the 2:30 mark of “Stupid Things” or the single snare-roll at the 4:00 mark of “Cornelia and Jane”: minute details that add significantly more.
They really outdid themselves this time; what Christgau said. Can’t wait for the next one; can’t wait for the day I think more highly of those two albums with longer names.