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Music Reviews

Yo La Tengo: Decades In And Far From Fading

Originally published on Mon February 4, 2013 12:19 pm

Yo La Tengo wouldn't seem to be very rock 'n' roll, given that it's a very stable and long-lasting operation. Since 1991, the lineup has consisted of a married couple — drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan, along with bassist James McNew — and all three play additional instruments as needed. Yo La Tengo has been with the same label, Matador, since 1993. But if the band lacks rock dramatics, I would argue that it knows as much about the modes and manners of rock 'n' roll as anyone who has ever played the music.

Kaplan and his guitar are particularly enamored of rock's electric noise, the delights of distortion and feedback fantasia. On Fade, Yo La Tengo gets that aspect out of the way in the first track, "Ohm," a song about refusing to feel discouraged.

Over the years, Yo La Tengo has been more and more drawn to pretty, catchy tunes that hold an intriguing dab of mystery inside. A confessional that makes you feel like you've heard a secret, though you can't quite say what it is. Hubley's plaintive vocals in "Cornelia and Jane" hint at a beloved intimate going through trauma or crisis. But the focus is on outsiders who don't understand, and on unanswered questions like, "Sending the message that doesn't get to you / How can we care for you?"

Newcomers to Yo La Tengo might want to start with a more insistent and straightforward release like 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, but for those used to listening to the slightly encoded collective diary of the group, Fade is a feast.

All of the previous Yo La Tengo records on Matador were produced by Roger Moutenot, a very simpatico soul. This time, the band reached out to John McEntire, known not only for studio work, but for drumming with the band Tortoise and a host of others. Fade has strings and horns unlike any previous Yo La Tengo record, but very much swaying in harmony. The final track, "Before We Run," may ponder how to make the most of our fleeting days, but the lasting impression lies in the deft interplay between strings and brass. Yo La Tengo all grown up, but not a whit stuffy.

Still, if I had to pick a favorite tune on Fade — most endearing, fresh but characteristic — it would be "Is That Enough," Kaplan's extended sigh about the ambiguities of love in a long-term couple. Whether it's unsaid jokes or undeclared affections, he notes, "There's just no way that it's enough." Kaplan even casts a quick shadow of despair when he sings, "What can't come back's what we can't bear to lose." But the music and words on Fade as a whole are pure affirmation of life and living. For Yo La Tengo, if what they have isn't enough, it's still plenty.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

The indie band Yo La Tengo formed in 1984 and for the past 20 years has consisted of the same three musicians. Music critic Milo Miles has a review of their new album "Fade."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE POINT OF IT")

IRA KAPLAN: (Singing) When you're screaming in my ear what's the point of it? When you're sure no one can hear, or none that you'll admit. Say that we're afraid. Say that we were wrong. Maybe that's OK...

MILO MILES, BYLINE: The band Yo La Tengo wouldn't seem to be quite un-rock 'n' roll in that it's a very stable and long-lasting operation. Since 1991, the lineup has been the married couple - keyboardist Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan - along with bassist James McNew. All three play additional instruments as needed. Yo La Tengo has been with the same label, Matador, since 1993.

But if they lack rock dramatics, I would argue that the group knows as much about the modes and manners of rock 'n' roll as anyone who has ever played the music. Kaplan and his guitar are particularly enamored of rock's electric noise, the delights of distortion and feedback fantasia. On "Fade," Yo La Tengo get that aspect out of the way in the first track, "Ohm," a song about refusing to feel discouraged.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "OHM")

MILES: Over the years, Yo La Tengo has been more and more drawn to pretty, catchy tunes that hold an intriguing dab of mystery inside. A confessional that makes you feel like you've heard a secret, though you can't quite say what it is.

Hubley's plaintive vocals on "Cornelia and Jane" hint at a beloved intimate going through trauma or crisis. But the focus is on outsiders who don't understand, and on unanswered questions like: Sending the message that doesn't get to you. How can we care for you?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CORNELIA AND JANE")

GEORGIA HUBLEY: (Singing) I hear them whispering just out of view. Still unknown, what's inside of you. Outside your window neighbors peer in at you. Now let me clear it for you.

MILES: Newcomers to Yo La Tengo might want to start with a more insistent and straightforward release like 1997's "I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One," but for those used to listening to the slightly encoded collective diary of the group, "Fade" is a feast. All of the previous Yo La Tengo records on Matador were produced by Roger Moutenot, a very simpatico soul.

This time, the band reached out to John McEntire, known not only for studio work, but drumming with the band Tortoise and a host of others. "Fade" has strings and horns unlike any previous Yo La Tengo record, but very much swaying in harmony.

The final track, "Before We Run," may ponder how to make the most of our fleeting days, but the lasting impression lies in the deft interplay between strings and brass. Yo La Tengo all grown up, but not a whit stuffy.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEFORE WE RUN")

MILES: Still, if I had to pick a favorite tune on "Fade" - most endearing, fresh but characteristic - it would be "Is That Enough," Kaplan's extended sigh about the ambiguities of love in a long-term couple. Whether it's unsaid jokes or undeclared affections, he notes: There's just no way that it's enough.

Kaplan even casts a quick shadow of despair when he sings: What can't come back is what we can't bear to lose. But the music and words on "Fade" as a whole are pure affirmation of life and living. For Yo La Tengo, if what they have isn't enough, it's plenty.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "IS THAT ENOUGH")

KAPLAN: (singing) Things we did unthinking, the joke we left unsaid, not sure how and when we were misled. And if that matters, it's a varied feud. And all that matters for me is you. Is that enough? Oh, is that enough? Well, it's not enough. No. If it's unclear the way I feel for you.

GROSS: Milo Miles reviewed the new Yo La Tengo album "Fade." You can download podcasts of our show on our website freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter @nprfreshair and on Tumblr at nprfreshair.tumblr.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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