For a band who incorporates more musical styles in a single record than most artists do in a lifetime, Popular Songs is surprisingly tame. In fact it’s as close of a cousin to Yo La Tengo’s last album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass as you’ll find minus the eleven minute fuzzy lo-fi opener and horn section.
You may even find some of the album stylings to be a bit dull. The psychedelic opener “Here To Fall” plods along through a wall of noise and reverberating space ship effects, “By Two’s” mixes timid, aimless synths with minimal vocals, and a handful of the other tracks seem languid and uninspired, if not .
But that’s part of the reason Yo La Tengo is such a great act, and one of the premier cult-followed indie bands of our time. There’s no pressure here, they’re just as comfortable with an Apples in Stereo-like falsetto (“Avalon or Someone Very Similar”), British invasion organ (“Periodically Double or Triple”) or a neo-Motown groove (“If It’s True”). The same way Yo La Tengo covers so many songs so successfully and makes them their own, they’re able to meld each type of song together into a single, cohesive album without any distraction.
And even though Popular Songs doesn’t sport the band’s strongest songwriting efforts, it’s still heartfelt and ardent. The immediately accessible tracks rise to the top for the first couple listens, while the slower music opens slowly like a drawbridge. Everything in context, the album is a neat slice of wonderful.
To their credit, what other band’s twelfth record has sounded so fluid, relaxed and imporous? While other bands from the ’80s have come and gone and left mark both in pop culture and music, Yo La Tengo is still busy leaving theirs. From their ambitious live shows, to the diverse collection of songs and records, they’re a bit of a musical anomaly. Case in point: lead singer James McNew tells the story of how the brief side project Condo Fucks came about. The band was going to play a show at a bar in Brooklyn’s closing night, and rather than book it under their well-known band name, they went with a name they’d come up with a long time ago, Condo Fucks. After recording their final practice session, and thinking they’d release it later independently, their label got a hold of it and produced the grungy set of cover songs before they could do it themselves. It’s this free spiritedness that permeates throughout their entire catalog. Popular Songs won’t be remembered as one of their best, but still well deserving of a place in their oeuvre.