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Yo La Tengo - Popular Songs

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Artist: Yo La Tengo

Album: Popular Songs

Label: Matador

Review date: Sep. 9, 2009

Is it just me, or has no one really kicked Yo La Tengo’s tires since I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One more than a decade ago? The band’s post-One records – uniformly enjoyable, not the sort of albums you’d get up to change – have been greeted with tacit approval by the cultural omnivore set. Along the way, intimacy replaced vitality, leaving the music comfortable for some and downright boring for others.

Still, there’s no denying that the band’s catholic taste continues to distinguish them from the rest of rock. As the term "indie" imploded, Yo La Tengo kept mining lounge music, Sun Ra and the Velvet Underground while reining in their wilder tendencies (and after 25 years, who can blame them). Their record-collector mentality has ensured that inspiration springs from within, not the latest pseudo-choral arrangement or African guitar compilation. The influence isn’t wedded to time, which can leave Yo La Tengo songs sometimes feeling like geeky inside jokes, but those winks at particular pasts are never told at the listener’s expense. It’s a rare generosity, and one, by its nature, that’s easy to miss.

Yo La Tengo’s recent easy-listening material, which includes Popular Songs, seems to touch on the ideas about intimacy and space found in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space. Their discography, in spite of its length, has the feel of a humble, intimate dwelling — what Bachelard might call “felicitous space.” In the trio’s universe, boredom and familiarity make for a kind of autonomy, and at this stage in their game, the onus is on us to find a past intimacy for Yo La Tengo to soundtrack.

When the band extends a helping, heavy hand, the results can come across as soggy and somnolent, which happens halfway through the great-but-tiresome And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. To its great credit, Popular Songs dodges that same bullet. The album slips by without beating the listener over the head with the particularity of its late-night Hoboken drift. And the whimsy of incidental tracks like "Periodically Double or Triple" keeps the YLT affect from becoming stale and cloying.

So there’s no sense in finding offense when Popular Songs’ rocker, "Nothing to Hide," uses the same guitar tone as "Sugarcube." YLT have built their house and especially now that everyone’s relieved of the duty of actually owning music, their brand of emotionally ambivalent wine-and-cheese party background music actually seems more worth having around. Even the feedback on the album’s noisiest song, "And The Glitter Is Gone," works more like tinsel than the shearing and slashing waves that hum through Electr-O-Pura. There’s no sense of loss, though – Popular Songs’ serenity is of the sort that clearly took a while to settle in.

As far as conclusions about Popular Songs go, it’s fair to address the reader not as a consumer of the music, but as someone breezing through its clean, familiar architecture. You should check this place out. It’s pretty sweet, and I think you’ll like the light.

By Brandon Bussolini

Other Reviews of Yo La Tengo

The Sounds of the Sounds of Science

Nuclear War

Summer Sun

Today is the Day

Prisoners of Love

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


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