YO LA TENGO And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (Matador)

This New Jersey trio's tenth album might be the one to finally propel them blinking into what passes for the limelight in the alternative universe, if its cluster of rave review press cuttings is any indication (which, unhappily of course, it rarely is). Ironic, then, that "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out" is initially far harder going than its predecessor, 1997's "I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One", an album equipped with so many stylistic twists and turns and more than its fair share of drop dead gorgeous melodies that it sounded almost like a compilation.

This time around the Yo La Tengo sound has fastened on to a kind of strange, droning electronica, almost as if the three-cornered R.E.M. of the "Up" album were attempting to cover the Galaxie 500 songbook. At times "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out" is downright alienating, for example the six minutes of mumbling that constitute opener "Everyday", or the frankly bizarre DIY drum machine-propelled "Saturday", a curiously perverse single choice.

Nevertheless, this is an album that rewards all the hard work the listener is prepared to put in whilst trying to unravel it. About five or six plays in you'll start to notice the shades of light and dark amidst what can appear initially to be unrelenting grey, the lyrics that flit seamlessly between dry humour ("Let's Save Tony Orlando's House") to painfully honest dissection of relationships ("The Crying Of Lot G") and the vapour-trail fragile melodies that soon lodge in your subconscious like grappling hooks. Even the most conventional and initially unremarkable song here, the straightforward guitar rock of "Cherry Chapstick", which wouldn't sound horribly out of place on a Superchunk album, reveals hidden subtleties the more you play it. And you'll probably want to play it a great deal.

"And The Nothing Turns Itself Inside-Out" is no quick fix. It's nearly 80 minutes of slow-moving gentle angst, pastel hued and ambience washed, and you'll have to dig deep for both meaning and melody. But it's blessed with both in quantities that comprehensively outclass just about every overhyped artless big name release you'll hear this year.

YO LA TENGO Prisoners Of Love (Matador)

“A smattering of scintillating senescent songs 1986-2003”, they subtitle it, which only sheds a little further light upon “Prisoners Of Love”’s purpose. This album collects, over 2 CDs, 26 Yo La Tengo tracks that might as well have been selected and sequenced by lottery number, usefully made available at a bargainatious price – I picked my copy up for a barely credible 5.99. Having spent the last two decades unobtrusively but resolutely going about the business of being themselves, without so much as a signature tune or radio hit to show for it, this attempt to bring the warm glow of Yo La Tengo fandom to a wider audience is utterly commendable in theory.

In practice, unfortunately, I can’t help feeling just a teensy bit underwhelmed. Presented non-chronologically as they are here, the songs of “Prisoners Of Love” underline how consistent the band’s output has been over the last 20 years – or, alternatively, how little their sound has developed in two decades. Carefully constructed and minutely detailed as each of these precious jewels may be, as “Prisoners Of Love” winds inexorably onwards it becomes ever harder to shake the suspicion that Yo La Tengo have spent their entire career fashioning parametric variations on the third Velvet Underground album. It’s a sledgehammer revelation akin to hearing your first Neu! album and realising that years of slavish devotion to the music of Stereolab has been somewhat misguided.

There are, of course, some magical moments here. I know this because they’ve been plucked from such accretive long-playing listening experiences as “Fakebook”, “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One” and “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out”, where they sound of a piece, rather than part of some VU tribute project. The original version of “Barnaby, Hardly Working” presented here disappoints, following earlier exposure to the gloriously folky radio session take found on “Genius + Love  = Yo La Tengo”, and the absence in any form of “Fog Over Frisco” just seems wrong.

On the credit side of the equation, doubt and concern have rarely been parcelled up with such hesitant, faltering beauty as displayed by “Stockholm Syndrome”. The shimmering “Our Way To Fall” swings as gently as something you might rest awhile on on a back porch, charmingly recalling a tentative new togetherness. Languid and woozy, “I Heard You Looking” could be the work of a detoxed Spiritualized, and George McCrae’s “You Can Have It All” is transformed into a gently pulsing thing, shimmering with barbershop harmony. “Did I Tell You” and “The Summer” demonstrate their oft-played trick of delicately mutating folk-rock, like a post-grunge Peter, Paul & Mary.

Late in the day, the mould fractures. “Blue Line Swingers”’s clatters and drones coalesce gloriously into melody and harmony in the manner of latterday Wilco and, belying its title, “The Story Of Jazz” rushes to the distorted, needles-in-the-red end of Yo La Tengo’s dynamic range. A percussion and vocal workout of Sun Ra’s seven minute warning, “Nuclear War”, follows, an ominous but impossibly groovy tribal apocalypse. Finally, proceedings take another swerve with the sincere simplicity of Sandy Denny’s “By The Time It Gets Dark”.

For all its many fine moments, “Prisoners Of Love” seems like a curiously reductive representation of Yo La Tengo’s genius, an album where the theory comfortably outdistances the reality. You’ll get your money’s worth, at least, but it seems to me that a career-trawling retrospective of such an interesting, inventive band shouldn’t leave a listener feeling so equivocal.

YO LA TENGO I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (Matador)

The last Yo La Tengo studio album I encountered – 2000’s “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out” – was, if I recall correctly, largely given over to melancholy electronica (there’s a genre in that if it could be satisfactorily contracted – any votes for melantronica?), a bit like Boards Of Canada remaking the third Velvet Underground album. All well and good, of course, but “I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass” is an even more tantalising prospect, a work that fizzes and bubbles with so many diverse styles and ideas that it sounds like a mix tape.

“Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” cracks open proceedings in enigmatic fashion, a droning, Krautrock-inspired jam that sprawls massively over its 11 allotted minutes. “Beanbag Chair” is superficially breezy, brassy 60s pop, as carefree as its title suggests in the surface but, like many of these songs, plying a darker lyrical cargo. “I Feel Like Going Home” is cut from similarly luxuriantly folky cloth as the band’s cover of Sandy Denny’s “By The Time It Gets Dark”. The 70s vibe and falsetto vocals of “Mr. Tough” barely disguise its air of repressed violence; “Black Flowers” is a gorgeous, barely classifiable ballad boasting (and how many songs can you say this of?) a particularly spry euphonium riff. “The Room Got Heavy” is all bongos, fuzz and drone, an arty extrapolation of yer standard garage rock formula; it’s followed by the smooth, jazzy confection “Sometimes I Don’t Get You”.

Over on the second disc, “Daphnia”’s nine minutes of tinkling piano ambience would fit perfectly if playlisted between Sonic Youth’s “Providence” and Mogwai’s “Radar Maker”. Possibly my favourite track here, “I Should Have Known Better” is a rollicking celebration of sheer bloodymindedness that never fails to get me grinning. The distorted rock ‘n’ roll of “Watch Out For Me Ronnie” would sound fine in any other context but suffers from the sequencing, rather choking on the vapour trails of the aforementioned highlight here. “Song For Mahlia”’s neo-lounge stylings soften the sadness of the lyrics, and then another of those immense jam sessions closes the album. “The Story Of Yo La Tengo” isn’t, of course – well, actually it might be, but the lyrics are so buried under noise as to be indecipherable - but in mutating from a whistle stop tour of Fripp & Eno’s “Evening Star” album into a sinewy, feedback-raddled indie guitar rock masterclass it’s true to its title sonically, at least.

Somehow, Yo La Tengo have produced an album that rings a whole steeple-ful of 60s and 70s bells that doesn’t sound for a moment sound like some retro exercise in record collection rock. And I’d like to say a small thank you for the inclusion in the (very tasty high quality 180 gram) vinyl edition of a voucher enabling the purchaser to download the album in its entirety gratis, a delightful gift for the iPod-owning record buyers amongst us.

YO LA TENGO I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One (Matador)

Like all their best albums, Yo La Tengo’s 1997 opus sounds like an expertly constructed mix tape. Rippling outwards from their core sound – imagine Sonic Youth exploring their fluffy pop side – “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One” unselfconsciously covers a staggering amount of ground, making the business of brilliance look laughably easy.

Opening with the instrumental loungecore drone of “Return To Hot Chicken”, the album swiftly chews up the Bacharach-embodying, “Peter Gunn”-riffing (or is it a steal from The Velvet Underground’s “European Son To Delmore Schwartz”?) “Moby Octopad” and the finely sculpted distortion and crystalline pop perfection of “Sugarcube”. “Damage” lazily summons up drowsy ennui, and “Deeper Into Movies”’ gorgeous melody swims into view through a shimmering sonic heathaze. “Shadows” models a doleful, panda-eyed girl group vibe, immediately evaporated by the pristine jangle of “Stockholm Syndrome” – imagine The Pastels gone all proficient. The Beach Boys’ ode to a groovy little motorbike, “Little Honda”, is retooled as a droning garage rock classic, and “Green Arrow” , another instrumental, evokes a sultry calm. The gentle, feathery “One PM Again” suggests a candy-coloured Lambchop and the Galaxie 500-esque “We’re An American Band” adds to Yo La Tengo’s canon of mumbled self-mythologizing (see also “The Story Of Yo La Tengo” from last year’s excellent “I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass” album). Proceedings draw exquisitely to a close with a cover of Anita Bryant’s 1960 hit “My Little Corner Of The World”. In fact, only the 11 minutes of “Spec Bebop” outlast their welcome: a kind of Hoboken take on Krautrock that would’ve been fine at a fraction of its length.

Even if you don’t like the music – and if you are now or have ever considered yourself an indie kid you’ll find much to enjoy here – “I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One” is worth the fee for the hilarious catalogue included in my copy – is it me or is it deliberately designed as a parody of the product listings the Thrill Jockey label used to package with their albums? – promoting the delights of such artists as The Electric Tie Rack and Unsanitary Napkins.

YO LA TENGO / EUROS CHILDS Manchester Academy 2 7 November 2009

 

Nonchalantly aiming to arrive fashionably later than the time on the ticket, I cleverly manage to miss much of ex-Gorky Euros Childs’ set, which, from the few songs I catch, seems to be very much my loss. If Super Furry Animals were actually as dazedly psychedelic as they seem to think they are, and cut back on all that heavy jamming that seems to infect their recent work, they might be heading some way towards the delightful summery sound Euros (on keyboards) and his bass and drum buddies brew up. One of his songs, he informs us, is about bread, the foodstuff, not the television series or the band. Genius.

               

I’m a bit disappointed by Yo La Tengo and, in all honesty, I could’ve seen the reason way in advance, and it’s clearly my failing rather than theirs. I become extremely frustrated if I’m vaguely familiar with the song I’m listening to but stop short of being able to summon up the title. And, well, Yo La Tengo’s oeuvre is pretty much tailormade to cause such confusion. Almost without exception, their songs are precision-turned, Pitchfork-friendly indie nuggets, but the Tengo have never been too concerned with aligning their prominent hooks with their titles. So, that nagging feeling intensifies through the first half-dozen or so songs, exacerbated by the way the band say not a word to us between them. I feel a bit bad about this as, when they finally address the audience, they seem like the politest people in rock, but even that seems to add to the faint but definite sense of bloodlessness that permeates the evening, only alleviated to a degree when James McNew doubles up over his guitar to strafe their seemingly endless stream of variations on the theme of the third Velvet Underground album with acrid, Neil Young-style feedback vapour trails.

               

There are highlights, though: long, raging Krautrock-esque jam “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” is excellent, as is a Peter, Paul and Mary-style “You Can Have It All”. There’s lots played from predictably fab new album “Popular Songs”, including a neverending “More Stars Than There Are In Heaven”, the slinky “Periodically Double Or Triple” and the Marvin-and-Tammi Motown stomp of “If It’s True”. But it seems somehow typical of the evening that when Euros and one of his backing musicians are recalled to the stage to assist with a Bob Dylan cover (apparently in honour of one of the band’s favourite albums, the “Royal Albert Hall” bootleg-no-more, being recorded in this fair city) I barely recognise “I Wanna Be Your Lover”. However, it’s also the first concert I’ve been to that features ironic audience requests for “Free Bird”, a practice apparently commonplace in the USA, and also the first at which the venue smells overpoweringly of incense.

              

By any reasonable standard Yo La Tengo are good tonight, but despite their commitment it just doesn’t add up to an awesome night out.

 

YO LA TENGO Popular Songs (Matador)

Predictably, "Popular Songs" is simply another great Yo La Tengo album, made with love and care and packaged with wit. The first disc of the fine-sounding double vinyl edition showcases their poppier sides; the second finds them stretchin' out.

 "Here To Fall" is a slo-mo piledriver of an opener; "Avalon Or Someone Very Similar" sounds like Vashti Bunyan fronting My Bloody Valentine, just as lovely an exercise in reality as it seems on paper. All woozy and hallucinogenic, "By Two's" could be a defocused Galaxie 500, its glacial calm shattered by the genteel garage rock of "Nothing To Hide" that follows it. "Periodically Double Or Triple" approximates Talking Heads' buttoned-down funk, and "If It's True" is a glorious Motown-style duet. Heading for a seamless fusion of loungecore and folk, "I'm On My Way" actually ends up sounding pleasingly reminiscent of  American Music Club, and "When It's Dark" evokes the Tengo's own spectral cover of Sandy Denny's "By The Time It Gets Dark". Although an exquisite pop song, "All Your Secrets" infuriates me because its most prominently repeated lyric, "Before The Riot", isn't its title.

The second disc contains three longer-form pieces that draw on the band's seemingly limitless ability to refashion the third Velvet Underground album into fascinating new shapes. "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven" is ten minutes of chugging Mo Tucker rhythms, spangled guitars and ethereal vocals, and on "The Fireside" a heavily reverbed acoustic guitar lazily unfurls itself into a melody. "And The Glitter Is Gone" takes up the entire final side with 16 minutes of fuzz, feedback and intricate Krautrock: it's running on the spot, admittedly, but entertainingly.

 For all the album's magpie-eared diversity, as evidenced by the playlist of comparisons that can be brought to bear when discussing it, it still sounds remarkably cohesive, clearly the work of a single band, every song haloed in the same rosy, satisfying glow. Nothing life-changing here, perhaps, but there's plenty that's life-affirming.

Home