Graded on Curve:
Yo La Tengo, Fade

Through a recording career that began four decades age, Yo La Tengo has chalked up a lot of high points. During their fabulous run they have become one of the most reliable groups of the last thirty years, and their new album Fade continues to find them in fine form. In expertly crafting their most concise musical statement since the mid-90s, the band remains in a state of constant evolution, and the record connects as just another unfussy classic in their already plush discography.

Yo La Tengo has been a veteran band for longer than some of their fans have been alive, but they’ve never really come off like elder statespersons, instead preferring to just be themselves and keep on doing what they do, the sturdy components of their sound being fairly immune to the aspects of groundbreaking newness that’s such a recurring element in the indie scene they helped define.

Even through periods of modestly experimental growth that have resulted in the band becoming a quite different affair (and one that’s much larger in terms of popularity) than most of their early fans would’ve ever predicted, Yo La Tengo has never really displayed any attempts to grasp onto the coattails of the latest thing. Instead, they have followed their own path, a circumstance that has been quite refreshing.

For example, when they handed off “Here to Fall,” a track from their last full length, 2009’s Popular Songs, to practitioners of the hip-hop field for a remix EP, they didn’t seek out the latest buzz-worthy artists from within that scene, instead engaging with established veterans like RJD2, De La Soul, and Pete Rock. And when they did the same for last year’s Fade teaser EP “Stupid Things,” they arrived at the wily talents of Eye Yamataka, the Japanese noise experimentalist and member of Boredoms, a guy who’s been active in the indie/u-ground since the late ‘80s.

But if Yo La Tengo seemingly possesses a disinterest in being spokespersons for the Old School that they casually inhabit, in fact being one of the long running bands most apathetic to soaking up the limelight, it’s sorta inevitable that they will still be treated as elder survivors in a scene where hundreds of buzz bands have came and went during their tenure.

Instead of cultivating their status as a classic band, Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew have simply concerned themselves with watching baseball games, scoring the occasional film, and growing older with an uncommon level of grace. Oh, and slowly but methodically adding to their massive songbook. And in so doing they become more attractive as an entity with each passing year.

So, predictably for the band’s partisans the announcement of the arrival of a new Yo La Tengo record brings a certain amount of satisfaction and along with it the anticipation of durable quality. The only small snag in their run of late period albums came with Summer Sun, and that the band’s ’03 album didn’t meet the expectations of all their fans wasn’t really a failure of ideas or execution.

Summer Sun was simply a low-key LP loaded with the quiet side of their collective personality, and as such the record’s actually grown quite rewarding with the passage of time. It didn’t even inspire all that much grumbling on the part of fans at the time. Instead, it simply reinforced that the group was indeed human, and that not every record would be a home run.

Except that just about every other Yo La Tengo release, especially from the Matador era, has actually been a four base hit. This should in no way register as a belittling of their earlier records; in the formative Coyote Records period and especially at the point of the covers-heavy classic for Bar None Fakebook, they were sorta defined as a record collector’s or rock critic’s band. Their one album for indie imprint Alias, the excellent May I Sing with Me, was a transitional record, being the first with bassist McNew, solidifying the lineup that persists to the present.

What came to the surface after their switch to Matador was an emotional fragility that’s never left their work, a quality that can be attributed to getting older, but has interestingly endeared them to a younger listenership and without the history lesson aura that comes attached to other veteran outfits like Pere Ubu or The Fall. The plain fact is Yo La Tengo make timeless music, and it’s why Fade delivers on the high expectations that accompany it with nary a hiccup.

The thing that springs to mind after a few spins of Fade is how different it is from their ’06 rebound record I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass. That LP was basically defined by its wild stylistic divergence as it progressed; the lengthy VU-descended roar of opener “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” the totally unexpected Philly Soul excursion of “Mr. Tough,” the almost Flaming Lips-like McNew sung “Black Flowers,” the buzzy organ driven psyche-rock raggedness of “The Room Got Heavy.” And that’s just the first half.

That above mentioned “Stupid Things” EP, while only holding three versions of the title song also couldn’t resist tempting with the possibility that Fade would provide a heaping helping of the majestic bruised lover’s vibe that made 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out so special. That fragile atmosphere is very much in evidence on “Stupid Things,” and while it’s one element in what makes Fade such a pleasurable listen, the record is most notable for the consistency and even restraint that shapes its unstrained diversity. In some ways the sturdiness that it exhibits places it pretty close to the territory explored on its predecessor Popular Songs.

Except that Fade lacks any of the extended excursions that dominated the latter portion of the prior record. In fact, every Yo La Tengo full-length since ‘97’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One has featured at least one cut that breaks the ten minute mark, but Fade’s longest tracks, opener “Ohm” and closer “Before We Run” both culminate at six minutes and some change. And at ten songs, it’s also the tidiest record they’ve delivered since their first couple for Matador in the mid-‘90s.

And it’s also the first LP by the band not produced by Roger Moutenot since May I Sing with Me. The desk duties on Fade were handled by John McEntire of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, and he essentially does a good, low-key job of helming a Yo La Tengo album, though the choice was also a smart one in terms of the added instrumentation that’s been a part of the group’s studio scenario for well over a decade.

So Fade is no late-career backslide; there’s pedal steel and a lush string section on “Is That Enough,” an extremely pretty song that still manages to connect as low key, perhaps due to the attractively plain vocals of Kaplan. Throughout their lifespan he’s inhabited the zone of a vocalist that simply gets the job done, but along the way he has sneakily imbued it with a depth of feeling and a specificity of personality that has helped make Yo La Tengo’s sound quite distinctive and affecting.

“Well You Better” features the by now thoroughly ensconced keyboards that helped the group to become more than just a guitar band, and it’s an exceptional little R&B riff that’s not very far from the mode of “Mr. Tough,” except that the latter is defined by its stylistic boldness; this track differs in taking a minimal approach, if one that’s still mighty infectious.

“Paddle Forward” tackles territory similar to classics like “Sugarcube,” except that it resists the urge to elevate to the rousing level of those past achievements. Instead, it’s acquits itself as a durable and tidy little rocker. And there’s no disappointment in its relative modesty, the situation being easily preferable to an attempt to force out another transcendent gem.

The spectacular and very much unforced transcendent gem comes with the following cut, the abovementioned “Stupid Things,” which does indeed hit upon the achy beauty that flowed from And Nothing Turned, but also connects with an urgency that’s specific to the tune. Kaplan’s guitar playing on the track is outstanding, though it never divorces itself from the objective of cultivating a rich, captivating mood.

“I’ll Be Around” explores the folkish territory that was a major component in the band’s pre-McNew days. They’ve continued to work in this area over the years but it’s often been sidelined to EPs like ‘03’s “Today is the Day!” While a fine track in its own right, it’s also impressive for how seamlessly it fits into Fade’s scheme. It’s followed by the Hubley-sung “Cornelia and Jane,” a song that initially returns to the vibe of And Nothing Turned. But the appearance of horns, notably Chicago guy Rob Mazurek on cornet (an obvious assist from producer McIntire), helps to usher in a different feel.

Maybe the song that’s most reflective of the aura of their masterpiece from 2000 is “Two Trains.” One of their sturdy down-tempo numbers, this one includes the sleepy but insistently ticking programmed rhythms and Kaplan’s quiet, almost spoken vocals, two elements that can’t help but be remindful of And Nothing Turned’s “Saturday” (except that Georgia sung that one) and “The Crying of Lot G.” But again, it never feels regressive; Ira’s playing is superb, as are his vocal “doo doo doos,” large in the mix but still sounding half whispered.

“The Point of It” returns the band to an acoustic framework for a swell slice of strummy folk-pop, and closer “Before We Run” brings Georgia back to the microphone for the record’s most ornate track, featuring both string and horn sections along with rhythms that are splendidly non-basic. As a whole it serves as a terrific coda for an exceptional album.

For rockers there’s basically just “Paddle Forward” and the catchy clamor of opener “Ohm.” That cut also holds Kaplan’s biggest moment of guitar firepower, but it’s a moment underscored by its brevity in keeping with Fade’s qualities of restraint. The record is also very concise, quite a turn of events for a band with releases that have broken the 77-minute mark.

If Fade is marked by its difference from the albums that led to it, possibly beginning the band’s late period, then one thing remains sweetly the same; it’s another beautiful record by one of the finest bands around.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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