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Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

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Artist: Yo La Tengo

Album: I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

Label: Matador

Review date: Aug. 30, 2006

When you pop Yo La Tengo’s 12th full-length into iTunes, Gracenote calls it “Children’s Music." And because the record’s been christened with the gleefully juvenile title I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, it seems necessary to take this categorization seriously. I Am Not Afraid Of You does, after all, include songs called “Beanbag Chair” and “Mr. Tough." And before you even get to those, the record opens with a nervous giggle, one of those elegantly simple James McNew bass hooks, some guitar fuzz worthy of the Feelies' “Slipping (Into Something)," and Ira Kaplan alliterating his encouragement from poolside (“Slide, slide, slide, down the waterslide”). By the record’s end – a 12-minute blue line swinger called “The Story of Yo La Tengo” – Kaplan is even singing about tearing the playhouse down.

Waterslides? Beanbag chairs? Playhouses? Ass-beatings? This is the band that, as recently as 2000, suggested a graceful roadmap for growing old. Night fell on Hoboken. Tears were in their eyes. “Cherry Chapstick," a flimsy and unsatisfying throwback to ringing, amped up gems like “The Evil That Men Do," assured us that it wasn’t worth trying to keep the past alive. Better just to revisit it “Last Days of Disco” style, through the flattering haze of memory, evoked by brushed snares, dewy melodies, and ephemeral wisps of reverb. Hell, Summer Sun, with its hushed jazz ambience and crow-footed Beach Boys nods, practically wore socks and sandals to the beach.

Yet on I Am Not Afraid Of You, one of rock’s most enduring and perennially interesting trios has decided to do the time warp. The aforementioned opening track – “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m GoodKind” – is vintage Yo La Tengo, from the winking reference to the Roger & The Gypsies single (the percussive underpinnings are kissing cousins) to the loosely tethered, Feelies-style guitar scrawl. And perhaps more tellingly, “Hatchet” is jigsawed beside a two-minute pop confection complete with punchy trombone (“Beanbag Chair”), an achingly beautiful piano ballad, sung by Georgia and decorated with stately strings (“I Feel Like Going Home”), and a bit of waist-twisting falsetto bop (“Mr. Tough”). That kind of range has been absent – I’ll let you decide how woefully – since I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One.

The problem, insofar as there is one, is how effectively things hang together. I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One may have sounded gloriously eclectic on the first few spins, but there was a wistful architecture of sustained mood that emerged only later, spanning the Bacharach pop arpeggios of “Moby Octopad," the droning organ of “Autumn Sweater," and the dusky cicada chirp of “Green Arrow." There are songs on I’m Not Afraid Of You that evoke similar emotions, and would have worked as part of that cycle: “The Race Is On Again," a modest, maraca-powered duet, is one. The uncommonly lovely, lilting jangle-pop tune “The Weakest Part” is another. But for the most part, murdering all those classics seems to have rekindled Yo La Tengo’s love for the stand-alone single. I Am Not Afraid Of You is a one-stop jukebox, covering everything from blue-eyed, country-bred soul (“Sometimes I Don’t Get You”), blistering rockabilly (“Watch Out For Me Ronnie”), and points in between. Don’t let the inevitable “it’s an album” pronouncements fool you. Albums are for grown-ups.

By Nathan Hogan

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