Music Reviews
Popular Songs

Yo La Tengo Popular Songs

(Matador Records) Rating - 8/10

Let’s go back to the concept of the popular song. Music historians believe that Irving Berlin, with his widely popular hit Alexander’s Ragtime Band, was one of the precursors to this ambiguous genre. Even if Berlin’s composition is, in structure, composed of other musical themes – it was classified between novelty piano and stride piano – its musical leanings were pushing for other styles, such as big band and jazz.

To paraphrase, popular music has always been a hybrid to better exemplify how a listener enjoys a specific musical cadence. Alexander’s Ragtime Band wasn’t even considered to be ragtime, since it didn’t have any of its characteristic features. It was a revelation because it began a craze of songs written with more fervor, by way of a more upbeat style and a faster tempo. Is the song popular in itself? It certainly was. To this day, artists from the entire musical gamut feel like they owe something to Berlin’s composition. Of course, to this hypothesis, there are many more theories, all of them inconclusive.

The title of Hoboken trio Yo La Tengo's latest, Popular Songs, seems apt because it encompasses a collage of sounds that suggest the term 'popular'; of course, popular in a context that is almost extinct. This isn’t your mainstream contemporary pop. It’s safe to say that Taylor Swift won’t be collaborating with Yo La Tengo anytime soon. This is more like your grandfather’s idea of a pop song, mashed with some standard indie pop that’s far more relatable for those between the 30 to 40 year old crowds who lived to see its birth.

In a career that spans 11 albums and numerous side projects - not to mention that their film scores are in high demand in the indie filmmaking industry - its safe to say that Yo La Tengo has the creative license to do anything they want. They’ve established this time and time again with a discography that could make any band under the “followers” section of their Allmusic page exceptionally mortified. Instead of opting to take the conceptual route, they truly believe that an album, by norm, should be established by arbitrary means, whether they are hit or miss. Not since 2001’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, known for being an ambient (not to mention sleepy) centerpiece of pop music, has the band intended to deliver a piece of work that’s strictly conceptual. Popular Songs has more the aesthetic of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Kick your Ass, both of them riskily spinning through the last revolutions of a compact disc. The only major difference is that Popular Songs has a leaner album title.

Popular Songs kicks off unpredictably with Here to Fall, a soulful, orchestral wash with sparse guitar usage that flows intrinsically with funkified keyboard touches. Ira Kaplan sings with quiet cool swagger, letting the atmospheric pacing illustrate itself as frontrunner. As soon as Avalon or Someone Very Similar hits the first notes, we’re transported to recognizable territory. Georgia Hubley’s impenetrable vocal range gives way to Ira’s classy, yet hazy, bluesy guitar pop soloing, which seems to drift instead of going for precision. This is as close as a surrealistic pop song could be.

From here on in, the music starts to evidence how they intend, thematically, to deconstruct these “popular” songs. Nothing to Hide is classic Yo La Tengo, a cheerful 60’s rock and roll homage with indie pop touches and organs in the chorus. They’re even deconstructing themselves, creating a vintage version that recalls their greatest hit Sugarcube, or even Painful’s Double Dare. Every Yo La Tengo album has to have one of these songs. However, this is far beyond any representation of their garage rock influences or their mid 90’s alterna pop. Instead, they track down their electronic musings with By Two’s, a slow paced, atmospheric two-note drag that gives way to nighttime reflection.

Speaking of musical directions, it seems as if Yo La Tengo blew the dust off a few of their old vinyl recordings. To earn a spot in the hit parade, they bestow a welcoming homage to classic popular forms of music, Motown being one of the key benefactors in the 60’s era, almost ignoring that the British Invasion ever existed. If It’s True is Yo la Tengo’s best AM radio impersonation, featuring violin strings and subtle guitar touches, replicating a "Sinatra with guests" style duet that would make anyone stand up and bop their heads. They’re having a lot of fun with Periodically Triple or Double, another organ induced ditty which recalls 60’s soul-drenched, white man groove à la Spencer Davis, stopping midway to give room to another of Ira’s wacky solos, accompanied by more “ooo ahhs”. Instead of dragging, the experimentation emphasizes the nostalgia. It’s as if you could almost hear the hiss of the vinyl crackling.

As it stands, Yo La Tengo has created a solid gold collection of nine tracks. But wait, there’s more. Tracks 10 through 12 have an unbearable running time of 36 minutes. Probably the only essential track in this last quarter is More Stars Than There Are in Heaven, a pulsating nine minutes of stimulating post rock, courtesy of Ira’s escalating guitar work, slowly going in crescendo with starry, dreamy synth ambience in the background. It would’ve been a perfect way to end a testy, yet accomplished 12th album. But then it gets difficult. Both The Fireside and And the Glitter is Gone add nothing to the collection; the former extends with a dreadful acoustic note that drags alongside very minimal moments of variation, while the latter seems to do just about the same, but with a heavier approach. They both seem to be cut-outs right out of their back catalogue, written as a thank you to their most rabid fanbase.

What comes next for Yo La Tengo is, to certain extent, a mystery. Predictably, they’ll probably make about five more albums before they have nothing else to show, if that’s even possible. Still, Popular Songs is the work of three skilled musicians that never take their music for granted. It works for a plethora of reasons, all of them quite distinct, which proves that they carry the longevity torch very proudly. By all means, this sounds like a classic rock record that harks back to the olden times, when artists would release records with the purpose of leaving a pleasant smile on the inexperienced listener's face – the thrill and excitement of listening to any new innovation for the first time. I guess it overthrows the concept of a pop song. Whether it’s the merits of success or the tempo of a tune, it only proves that pop music will always exist no matter the variation. If it were Yo La Tengo playing on the radio forty years back, they would've been pleased.