If rock and roll were fantasy football, then Yo La Tengo would be the players that everyone tries to draft. For thirteen albums, the band have been critical darlings for good reason: they deliver consistent results and exquisite songcraft with each release. The band is at a point where you don’t really run the risk of releasing a bad album; they are minor fluctuations of good to great with the disappointments generally coming on the heels of an offering that’s been deemed above average, based on their own lofty curve.
Album fourteen, Popular Songs, finds the band delivering yet another decent release, albeit one that loads up the first half with impressive results while leaving side two to flounder under its own girth.
The first half-dozen are keepers; running through genres of soul finger snap, gentle adult melodies and the occasional fits of psychedelic rock. “Periodically Double Or Triple” (MP3) is a bouncy mid-60s r&b jaunt while “If It’s True” respectfully lifts the Four Tops, making the two tracks ones that you’ll be repeating for some time. It’s hard to bag on such shoplifting when the band sound like they’re having so much fun while Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley seem to be playing footsie with each other on lines like “Lets make jam when life gives us a peach!”
Even the forays into blatant middle age (“When It’s Dark,” “Avalon Or Something Similar,” “I’m On My Way”) are forgivable because they are so perfectly executed. It’s clear that these songs were fleshed out in rehearsal instead of a sterile studio environment with session musicians following sheet music to perfect euthanasia. These are arrangements created by a band that is now too far into their career to be considered “indie” or “alternative.” Yo La Tengo is at a point where their talent has also enabled them to conjure up a number of genres with ease with little concern of perception and with no trace of pretention.
By the time of track nine, “Tell Me All Your Secrets,” there becomes a sudden deflation in Popular Songs highflying act. Not even the sweet “da doo doo”s can save the slide; it’s merely a quick prep for the next two tracks that will test the patience of anyone who may have a few chores to do or a few errands to run. Yes, “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven” and “The Fireside” combine for over twenty minutes of lackadaisical guitar strums, neither one taking fire and neither one setting one either.
Kaplan brings out a nice bit of feedback for the closer, but at fifteen minutes in length, the average listener is reaching for the rewind to get another taste of the great first half the album provided earlier.
Again, Popular Songs proves to be (another) winner in the band’s impressive catalog, even with its late game stumbles. The irony with it is how the disappointments within it are merely highlighted because of a stellar first half. In the hands of a lesser band, such misfires may have been completely overlooked, but with Yo La Tengo, we have their career stats close at hand and we always expect great things out of them every season.
Also: Watch videos for five tracks from Popular Songs.