For a band that’s been around as long as Yo La Tengo has, it’s a surprise these indie heavyweights released an album as fresh and varied as Popular Songs. The New Jersey band (that is not Bon Jovi) has given us an effort that offers up sweet pop, extended guitar freak-outs, alt-rock, and a few acoustic tracks in between. As a result, there’s something for everybody on Popular Songs.
The album can be broken up into two sections. The first section takes many twists and turns in its nine tracks, but the root here comes from “Here to Fall”. With a string section similar to Beck’s “Paper Tiger”, lead singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan sings, “I know you’re worried/I’m worried to,” but it doesn’t sound comforting in the least. Kaplan’s leadership also shines through on the garage rock of “Nothing to Hide”, and especially the final three songs on the record.
Popular Songs’ second track should prove to be one of the sweetest pop songs to be released this year. “Avalon or Someone Very Similar” contains summertime vocals courtesy of drummer Georgia Hubley, who shares vocal duties throughout the album with her husband, Kaplan. It’s in her voice that songs like “By Two’s” stand out, and her breathy delivery guides “When It’s Dark” to its quiet conclusion.
Yo La Tengo isn’t afraid to wear its inspirations on their sleeve for everyone to hear. “If It’s True” takes the strings and rhythm from The Four Tops’ “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)”. The punctuated notes of “Periodically Triple of Double” take the guitar from Nick Cave’s “Red Right Hand”. In some respects, Popular Songs plays like your latest mixtape, where R&B can get sandwiched in between the latest alternative or classic rock songs.
The second section of the album actually comes in the final three songs. Tracks 10-12 are epic and together equal the length of Popular Songs’ first nine tracks. “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven” works because of the terrific harmonies from Kaplan and Hubley. The fuzz rock of “And the Glitter is Gone” could have been on Dinosaur Jr’s latest record, reminding us that these bands have been around as long as they have for a reason.
Popular Songs fails only in its middle section. After the variety of music offered up in the opening tracks, the mid-tempo acoustic songs tend to become indistinguishable from one another. And “The Fireside” could work as a transition into another song, but as it stands, it’s a good 10 minutes too long. All that having said, Yo La Tengo’s Popular Songs throws the Jersey rockers into that rare batch of bands whose latest releases are just as relevant as their music from 25 years ago.
“Here To Fall”