The newest phase of Yo La Tengo’s profoundly rare career trajectory—bland first and wildly creative later, effortlessly outlasting much younger acts that ran out of new ideas ages ago—continues reassuringly with Popular Songs, the 25-year-old band’s 16th full-length. As if reversing the famous Mets blooper they’re named after (the baseball flying backwards from Richie Ashburn’s mitt, undropped), the Hoboken vets arrive draped in the self-confidence they declared with 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and reasserted on this year’s surreptitious side-project Fuckbook.
On the album-opening “Here to Fall,” an electric piano floats in delay before James McNew’s two-note bass call signals the arrival of Georgia Hubley’s drums, couched in a muddy crunch. When the strings pipe up, arranged by Sun-Ra-bassist-turned-soul-jazz-arranger Richard Evans, it’s clear that Yo La Tengo have found yet another way to be Yo La Tengo. Still, when Ira Kaplan’s dry-guy vocals kick in, the trio already sounds buried so deeply inside their comfort zone that you might not even notice the difference. “If you’re ready/I’m here to fall with you,” Kaplan sings, with dual resonances (as always) of assurance and tumult, while Evans’s strings get all epic. Kaplan’s keyboards sow more fresh ground—or, at least, assert that this isn’t just another band with guitars. “Wait, wait/See what comes after,” Kaplan and Hubley harmonize on “Nothing to Hide,” vintage Farfisa (or is it an Acetone?) nestled beneath them like a prime Wrecking Crew accoutrement. “When it’s dark/Will I come apart?” Hubley wonders on “When It’s Dark,” three-part vocals locking together like a solved puzzle. The band has never sounded this elegant, Kaplan’s guitar never more articulated and urbane.
Sophisticated mid-’60s pop is the order of the day, though trying to decipher the constellation of influences in latter-day Yo La Tengo is a complicated (albeit rewarding) astronomy. While aggressively eclectic, the band’s smarts ultimately unify Popular‘s wildly varied tunes. And even when they fall back on familiar moves, like the gentle drum-machine loops of “By Twos,” the production of Roger Moutenot (himself in his eighth tour of duty here) keeps things fresh and radiant.
Only occasionally does the band overshoot, Kaplan’s droll detachment undoing the credible funkiness of “Periodically Double or Triple.” But even there, the ricocheting backing vocals during the song’s final third (like a huskier version of Japanese pop weirdo Cornelius) are a worthwhile payoff. Nearly everywhere, Hubley, Kaplan, and McNew have found some new songwriting trick to keep them (and us) entertained. Have Hubley and Kaplan really never done a his/hers duet before, as they do on the Evans-abetted “If It’s True”? Has McNew’s Prince obsession, as channeled on his That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice? tribute, finally started to reap benefits on the tender “I’m on My Way”? Though there might not be an “Autumn Sweater” or “Tom Courtenay” among this bunch, the choruses still sink deep hooks, so perfect they don’t need to be classic.
Considered to be a double-vinyl set—and you can pretty safely assume that that is how YLT are considering it—Popular‘s first platter is a concise nine-song, 35-minute pop excursion, while the second is a three-song jam-out, the songs increasing in length as the band sounds steadily more familiar and less alluring. “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” is an almost-by-the-numbers build-plus-harmonies excursion, hitting that spot square and true. “The Fireside,” though, never quite congeals over its 11-plus acoustically droning minutes, while the nearly-16-minute “All the Glitter Is Gone” is a sharp Kaplan freakout that sounds, really, like many of his other freakouts. That’s OK, too. Despite the fact that they sometimes sound like everybody who came before them, there is no other band that sounds like Yo La Tengo, popular or otherwise.
Yo La Tengo play Roseland September 25