CD Review: Yo La Tengo, Popular Songs

Yo La Tengo has been around for so long, and been so good for so long, I thought they’d pretty much exhausted all the indie rock tricks out there. And then I heard “If It’s True,” track number six from the band’s newest LP, Popular Songs (Matador, out Sept. 8).

It opens with a dusty bass groove that wouldn’t have been out of place as a B-side to The Temptations’ “My Girl.” Then the syrupy strings slide in, singers/spouses Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan start trading verses, and we’re off! Next stop: Hitsville U.S.A.! This song, like Spoon’s “You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb,” proves there’s a whole indie-Motown sub-genre out there just waiting to be exploited by some enterprising artist.

But exploring styles is nothing new for Yo La Tengo and as soon as the strings of “If It’s True” fade out, they move on to a whole different sound: the moody folk-pop of the James McNew-voiced “I’m on My Way.”

If there’s one constant throughout Yo La Tengo’s career it’s their adamant refusal to settle into one particular groove for too long. Popular Songs is a prime example of their approach, bouncing from gentle campfire strums (”The Fireside”) to squalling noise-rock (”And the Glitter Is Gone”) and then over to ’90s fuzz-toned indie rock (”Nothing to Hide”) just for old times’ sake.

There’s little to fault here, but the album suffers from the sheer predictability of its high quality. Does any Yo La Tengo fan really expect the group to start half-assing it?

Even the genre-hopping at this point doesn’t shock.  Tune in to a new Yo La Tengo album and you’re bound to hear something you haven’t heard them do before. Unfair? Of course. Heck, even my reviews of this band are starting to become predictable. In 2006, reviewing I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, I concluded my positive notice by writing, “This is indie rock. You either love this shit or you don’t.” Well, assessing Popular Songs, I can’t add much: That dictum still applies.

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