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Yo La Tengo - Fade

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Artist: Yo La Tengo

Album: Fade

Label: Matador

Review date: Jan. 11, 2013

Yo La Tengo - "Ohm"

The timelapse video for “Ohm” shows a large, bare tree (the same one that appears, fully-foliaged, on the cover) standing more or less still on a green lawn. You can see the passage of a day in the clouds rolling by overhead, or in the geese, people and other living things that flash on and off the screen in blips of motion, but all of that has very little impact on the tree itself. It moves slightly from time to time, its branches shifting in some invisible wind, or who knows, maybe trees feel the need to stretch once in a while?

In any case, it’s an interesting metaphor for Yo La Tengo, a band that has been rooted in a bohemian, fuzz-crusted, pop-flashing aesthetic for close to three decades now. Longer-term trends — the first lo-fi wave, the Gang of Four revival, Afro-beat, chillwave — have blown over like choppy weather. Short term flashes in the pan — pick your favorites, anything from 1984 on (I nominate Franz Ferdinand and Bloc Party) — have popped up and disappeared. The tree, the band, the three members — Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew — are pretty much where they’ve always been, in the jangly, drone-y corner of Hoboken where The Feelies, Flying Nun, The Velvet Underground and Galaxie 500 all hang out together.

Fade is Yo La Tengo’s 13th album, mostly in line with Popular Songs’s relative softness and accessibility. There’s a certain amount of sporadic, muted guitar mayhem, a la I Am Not Afraid Of You’s “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” but they bury it under fuzz and hiss, like people who have learned to cough into their elbows during flu season. They favor repetitive grooves that are hard at the core but nebulous around the edges, snare and maracas popping out of an electrically-charged stew of tones and overtones. I like particularly the way that “Ohm”’s late blooming, fairly aggressive guitar solo cuts through and then is subsumed by the fuzz and static, a screaming statement muted to a murmur. Later, “Paddle Forward” shushes guitar feedback, so that you hear the crackle but not the roar, and so that barely exhaled harmonies from Hubley and Kaplan can float over top without straining.

Yet mostly, these songs are well behaved and non-confrontational. Strings and horns flourish in the poppier corners of these songs, adding a slick disco sweetness to “Is That Enough?,” a florid orchestral complexity to closer “Before We Run.” The backing players make up an elaborate ensemble — there two trombone players, a trumpet player, Rob Mazurek on cornet and a string quartet, all recorded by John McEntire — but stay mostly in the interstices, filling in the space between breathy epiphanies.

What I’ve always liked about Yo La Tengo is the way they work at the intersection of noise and pop, of strife and serenity, of record-loving musical acumen and amateur execution. Fade is mostly too smooth to see the joints, to pick apart the layers of contradictory information. There’s a moment at the beginning of “Stupid Things,” when a lyrical guitar lick does battle with the boing-ing industrial abrasion of a synthesized beat, where at first you can’t see how both elements could be part of the same song, but then they are pulled under the warmth and fuzziness of a languid melody. Fade wraps its sharpest, hardest elements in a fuzzy blanket, so that you hardly hear them at all.

Lyrically, the album touches on subjects dear to bands past mid-life, the passage of time, the elusiveness of meaning, the reassuring persistence of human affection. (From “Ohm”: “But nothing ever stays the same, nothing’s explained / the higher we go, the longer we fly / ‘cos this is it for all we know.”) The lyrics are delivered in the usual way: quietly, obliquely, elliptically, all three members singing at volumes barely above a sigh. They break occasionally into the wordless ecstasies of “doo-doo-doos,” taking pop’s escape hatch from linear narrative to pure sensation. They play with doo-wop, girl-group and classic soul (check how the Rhodes and bass minimalism of “Well You Better” evokes Stax without exactly sounding like it), filtering everything through haze.

Even stuffed to the gills, as on “Better Run Now,” with instruments and counterpoints and contrasts, Fade’s songs have a hallucinatory simplicity. They slip by. You can’t quite get a grip on them. They blur and fade like old memories, but leave a meaningful impression.

By Jennifer Kelly

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