Yo La Tengo
Jeff Pearson, January 14, 2013
It has become increasingly difficult for Yo La Tengo to disguise the fact that they are a guitar-rock band at heart. As time goes by, their guitar epics, typically coated in halcyon vocal performances and lush atmospherics that somehow have always made us forget just how hard Ira Kaplan is shredding beneath it all, have seen a balance shift. Perhaps it’s just natural progression; after nearly twenty years as a band, the guitar theatrics bubbling beneath the delicate pane of foggy glass with which the band shrouds their music were bound to burst to the surface. The more unlikely scenario would be that Kaplan and Georgia Hubley see their opportunity to be the newly-crowned king and queen of guitar rock now that Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth have announced their separation, but either way, the riffs are flying wildly on Fade, their newest record, proving abstraction can’t hold them back for good.
It’s fitting for a band like Yo La Tengo, who has steadily carved their own path in an ever-changing market that they refuse to adhere to, that straightforwardness is the next logical step for the band to continue in their trajectory of obscurely adored. Following a few bizarre curveballs (a full record of punk covers under the name Condo Fucks or the infamous Wheel Tour where the Hoboken band ended up performing entire television episodes onstage—from Seinfeld to Judge Judy), delivering a somewhat straightforward record like Fade comes off as more bizarre than all of the other hijinks combined.
Everything from the song titles to the typically sprawling arrangements has been scaled back for Fade—perhaps giving the guitars their more upfront role through immediacy; making it their most concise songwriting effort to date. Where the band usually hovers around fifty words per record in the title department and six minutes per song in length, tracks like “Ohm” and “Two Trains” see Yo La Tengo adopting brevity both in appellation and arrangement. Though the band has garnered much of their respect for their ability to pen songs that push sprawling experimentalism and compact disc capacity limits to the brink, Fade doesn’t suffer at all from taking a slimmer approach; in fact, the opposite is true. The album highlights their keen sense of attack and in compacting what is typically allowed to breathe more freely, their songwriting hits harder than ever before.
The aforementioned “Ohm” kicks the record off, setting the tone for Fade with pronounced, well-produced guitars and punchy rhythms. As Kaplan spouts, “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top / Sometimes the good guys lose,” it sounds like the whole band has a collective grin on their faces; my girlfriend immediately said, “Oh! This is fun!” words that had never been uttered in regards to a Yo La Tengo record before, as clear an indication as any that this is a new side of the band. At first I laughed her proclamation off—being stuck in records like I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, where fun was only to be had if you found quiet nights getting lost in the shadows of fan blades bouncing around a ceiling above your dimly-lit room as the records spun fun—but after spending more time with Fade, I found her to be correct. The record is fun, and, truth be told, Yo La Tengo deserves to have some fun. Coming up on twenty years consistently as a band, it’d be unfair of us to ask for another dreary-night soundtrack, music to get lost to in fan blades’ shadows.
Much of the album’s sound—surprisingly, given his own freely-venturing music—can be attributed to the fact that Tortoise’s John McEntire produced Fade. After having worked with Roger Moutenot for several years, Yo La Tengo decided to go a different direction, production-wise. Kaplan told Pitchfork, “Every time we made a record with Roger we always considered not making a record with him. We always thought about it, then decided to work with him. But when the idea of John came up, it felt right.” McEntire’s work both as a recording artist and a producer is prevalent all throughout Fade; James McNew’s silken bassline atop Hubley’s jazzy percussion exercises on “Well You Better” would fit right in on any Sea And The Cake record, a directness that seems to have been bred from having a new set of ears in the studio.
Other than the slightly more up-front production and concise structural visions, long-time fans of the band will find lots to love about Fade. They approach the topic of mortality and their own humanness with the subtle humor and softly-sung winks to the listener all throughout—from the western twang of the McNew-led “Is That Enough” to the drivingly shifting “Stupid Things,” it’s unmistakable Yo La Tengo, even despite the many new facets to their music. After all, what has always made the Hoboken sweethearts so lovable is the way they play; the orchestral brushstrokes on album closer, “Before We Run,” circle around Hubley’s unassuming vocal, making her sound like the young girl who found her love for music years ago. Yo La Tengo show no signs of losing that love, decades later, and it’s their nearly palpable joy for expressed through their playing that makes Fade such a fun record.
Official music video for “Before We Run”