What a gross prospect that a 30-years-going (and at least 20-years-miraculous) band like Hoboken’s finest have to contend with critical acclaim, that tempestuous thing that doubts itself every so often when a band simmers for too long. Yo La Tengo does nothing but simmer, and their excellent records are proof that a band need not boil over to consistently make the best American music in the universe.
Yes, 2009’s Popular Songs was close as they get to repeating themselves, generic title intact, triple-boring endless coda devastating (“The Fireside” was, sure, the worst thing they’ve ever recorded). But you could still glean “If It’s True,” “Nothing to Hide” and “Periodically Double or Triple” from it, three of their easiest tunes since “Sugarcube” if not 1992’s “Upside-Down.” Then there’s the preceding two records, 2006’s riotous Nuggets-styled jukebox I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass and the mysteriously disliked Summer Sun, which spent the twilight hours of the decade’s remainder swelling into this reviewer’s favorite album of 2003. Summer Sun’s thunder was mostly stolen three years prior by the haunting …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, presumably because critics didn’t think they could enjoy two very quiet albums in a row. 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One was their jack-of-all-trades switchblade, their Sign ‘o’ the Times by most accounts, and before that their noisiest record, Electr-O-Pura, which damn near equaled anything they’ve ever done. Except for Popular Songs, every one of these is a great record. I suppose something about my post makes me not to be trusted that they don’t dip. Trust this: bands rarely get to age 30 without having streaks of miraculous albums. And OK, they relegated a lot of the crap to EPs and anthologies and other B-crap. Remember when they banged up a garage as the Condo Fucks? Hoodlums.
Despite the fact that the young year’s Fade is a great album—their best since, yup, Summer Sun—this is the odd reversal of a band who’s always given fans plenty to chew on now servicing critics to regain recognition. Inside jokes of song titles are out. As are 12-minute organ workouts. Humor is sparse. Nothing sounds like a cover tune from the vinyl deeps. Fade is just 10 distinctive, beautiful songs in 45 minutes meant to show their languid new peers (Real Estate, Beach House, Grizzly Bear, what have you) who’s boss. It shouldn’t work. It’s to that roaring 20-year streak’s goodwill that it does.
They save their songiest new song for the opener that most flaunts the “electronic” additions of Tortoise’s John McEntire (big deal, they’ve been looping drones since 1989’s “Barnaby, Hardly Working”). “Ohm” counters its funky shaker and one-chord drone with the most memorable and out-front lyrics of possibly the band’s career: “Sometimes the bad guys go out on top/ Sometimes the good guys lose/ Been trying not to lose our hearts/ Not to lose our minds.” Whether it’s about the fiscal cliff or their own uncertainty over whether they’ll ever have the energy to do another one (“But nothing ever stays the same/ Nothing’s explained”), they confront the mortality of everything on a six-minute track that never jams because the tune never lets go, cresting with doo-doo-doos and then a melody-unwinding guitar solo halfway through. They never did write an anthem, so here’s their “Teen Age Riot,” three decades late. Call it “Old Age Shrug,” since the title “Ohm” is one of those things that’s never explained.
The remaining nine tunes perform another feat they’ve rarely indulged: showcase individual parts. Sick of their murmured lo-fi getting shafted by people who’d otherwise admire their chops, they brighten each element in the mix on Fade, so you can really hear the delicate snap of the snares on “Well You Better,” the flamenco-like soloing on “Stupid Things” against vaporized fuzz bass, the acoustic guitars on “The Point of It,” the fine-china string quartet on “Is That Enough.”
Despite sanding off many of their hallmarks, every track eventually kicks in, like the fast “Paddle Forward” that you barely notice at first because the slow ones are so beautiful, and “Two Trains” which makes like Imperial Teen at half-speed and could’ve fit perfectly onto …And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. “Cornelia and Jane” is a classic Georgia Hubley torch song, with more audible momentum and horns that return for a closer with, wow, arena-rock drums. Because only “Ohm” and “Before We Run” dribble over six minutes, there’s little here to distract people from remembering every tune, which isn’t really the point of Yo La Tengo, but proves they can do straightforward/upfront/etc. nevertheless. Just remember that proving new things doesn’t negate old ones; the pastoral elegance here should inspire people to go back and learn more about Summer Sun, which is more delicate, subtle, oddly shaped. But Fade stakes out its own winning terrain. The speedy Muzak soul of “Well You Better” is Ira Kaplan’s most impressive vocal performance ever, no? Aren’t you glad you can hear it with such clarity?