Seven years ago, I bought a t-shirt with a Venn diagram on it — the left circle read “Music I Like,” the right circle read “Music You Like,” and the overlap in the center read “Music I Used To Like.” It seemed worth a laugh at the time — a self-deprecating parody of indie elitism. But these days, I don’t wear it anymore; the joke hits a little too close to home, especially given the type of music I write about (read: “difficult”). Living in that overlap is a necessary evil at times (especially when Coldplay offers up something particularly appalling), but it’s not really a pleasant place to be. I’d much rather spend my time in the “Music I Like” circle — sharing, interpreting, and peeling back the thorny skin to find the fruit beneath— with the hope that you’ll join me there.
Yo La Tengo makes this easy. In many ways they are the quintessential “indie band” — by turns raucous, approachable, irreverent, incendiary, graceful, and (to this day) unassuming. No matter how many people enter into the Yo La Tengo fan club, I’m delighted to be in their company. Because in their third decade of performing together, the Hoboken trio of husband Ira Kaplan (singer/guitarist), wife Georgia Hubley (singer/drummer), and friend James McNew (bassist) still make music that’s unabashedly about their little corner of the world. They sing about summers, cars, nights in New Jersey, being in a band, being in love, how people who are in love can still hurt each other, and these days, growing old gracefully. Fade, the 13th studio album from Yo La Tengo, is yet another in a long line of nuanced, affecting, and staggeringly pretty albums from this perennially undervalued band.
The record’s strongest points build on the band’s classic templates; warm guitar rumble and ramshackle snares on “Ohm,” the tender, awkward introspection of “Is That Enough,” and “Well You Better’s” quirky twee bounce. “Paddle Forward” opens with a gush of guitar feedback that prefaces it’s aquatic imagery, under which Kaplan’s and Hubley’s voices harmonize in a distinct shoegazey drone. Horns and strings make welcome appearances on “Is That Enough” and “Before We Run,” continuing the subtle sonic embellishments Yo La Tengo smartly added late in their career. McNew’s bass lines are understated yet flowing, propelling the band’s most concise collection of songs since 1990’s Fakebook. There’s no marathon guitar jam sessions ala “Spec BeBop” or “Night Falls Over Hoboken,” but otherwise much of Fade harkens back to the band’s golden period of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (1997) and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000). As musicians and songwriters, they’re competent yet never showy, exhibiting technique and chops in the interest of constructing mood and atmosphere over virtuoso performances.
Kaplan’s and Hubley’s relationship remains a source of lyrical inspiration — the couple sharing doubts, triumphs, and aw-shucks sentiments through organ-drenched, guitar rock. They’re a royal couple of sorts in indie music circles (especially since Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon called it quits) who’s declarations of fidelity never feel flashy or mawkish — there’s something cool about being in love that never goes out of style. “I always know that when we wake up/ You’re mine” is delivered with the weight and comfort of a hand-penned love letter, especially when sung over Kaplan’s plunging riffs. “Say that we’re afraid/ Maybe that’s okay/ If we’re not so young” is consolation shared by partners who’ve been through thick and thin and are now facing the latter half of their lives together with dignity and reflection.
It’s that sense of encroaching twilight that makes Fade stand out most. This is a band that, from the very beginning, has sounded old; now that they’re here (at least in terms of their peers), maturity fits them like a glove. Kaplan advises “Lose no more time/ Resisting the flow” on the appropriately-named instant classic “Ohm” — it’s a measure of Yo La Tengo’s ability to bend to life’s strain while maintaining fierce musical independence. On the beautifully poignant “The Point of It,” Kaplan admits “Honey, that’s okay/ If we’re getting old/ If we’re not so strong/ If our story’s told.” There’s a sense of acceptance without complacency; Fade‘s vitality alone is a refusal to give in to the falling apart process. This album isn’t just for aficionados looking to round out their collection — it remains a thoughtful, vital piece of the band’s ever-unfolding story.
“Sometimes the bad days maintain their grip/ Sometimes the good times fade” Kapler says on “Ohm.” It’s not a cheerful message, and Yo La Tengo still aren’t a cheerful band. They remain resoundingly difficult by today’s popular music standards, and you may need to step out of the “Music You Like” circle (or expand it) to try them out. But as dark, tangled, and depressing as this music can be, there are glimmers of hope running all through these songs. Life is like that too. Amidst the dissonance, minor chords, and hardships, there’s moments of real beauty and melodic warmth. You’ll will enjoy spending time with this album, not out of of any obligation, but because it’s worth it to experience those precious seconds. If Fade represents a letting go and a natural part of Yo La Tengo’s career descent, it’s a gorgeous arc indeed.
Yo La Tengo – “Ohm” – mp3