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Album Review: Yo La Tengo’s ‘Popular Songs’

Time can be so unkind to rock bands as they stick around, age and refuse to break up: Some burn out – others fade away. Still others like Yo La Tengo manage to mine remarkably rich new veins in the ground they’ve broken long ago. Much like the rock-solid coupledom of bandmates Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, this group refuses to call it splitsville, especially since it continues to find new songs to sing, popular or no.

Such is the feel of Yo La Tengo’s new Popular Songs (Matador), the Hoboken, N.J., combo’s 12th or 14th album, depending, as their press literature goes, on “what and how you count.” It’s familiar yet fresh, sure to be popular with their fans though equally certain to sound adventurous to others. After all, you can’t include a 15-minute-plus closing track (“And the Glitter Is Gone”) on what is essentially an indie rock disc and call it exactly playlist-friendly today.

In any case there’s plenty to love, plenty to sing -- from the first inner-and-outer-space, echo-chamber reverberations of “Here to Fall,” a blissed-out, string-stung and bass-heavy ode to both krautrock’s beat happening and Serge Gainsbourg’s The Ballad of Melody Nelson (“I know you’re worried / I’m worried, too / But if you’re ready / I’m here to fall with you,” Kaplan sings airily), to that super-freaked finale, which positively, politely wallows in the delicate little changes moving across its inexorable groove.



Yo La Tengo does let its freak flag fly, but those instances are as rare as the disc’s more conventional pop numbers (see the Motown-ish sideways glance “If It’s True”). Rather, Popular Songs is shaped by the subdued, dissonant dub of “By Two’s” and Hubley’s coo on “Avalon or Someone Very Similar,” as well as, no doubt, the trio’s soundtrack work for such films as Old Joy and Adventureland. The broken, strung-out, and mutilated cassette tape in the cover art telegraphs a bittersweet, nostalgia that cozily jibes with the sound, which is quieter than recent Yo La Tengo efforts – and closer to the fin-de-siècle funk of 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, which even today come off like Revolutionary Road-style, international-domestic, suburban opuses. The glitter isn’t gone yet.

Yo La Tengo plays Oct. 18 as part of the Treasure Island Festival. For more information, go to treasureislandfestival.com