Sometimes it’s best to start at the beginning. So here it is: Yo La Tengo’s new disc is front-loaded with a throbbing, surging, thoroughly enjoyable 10-minute-and-45-second psych-guitar opus called “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind.” The lyrics are unintelligible, for the most part, so the message has to come from the music, and the message is pretty clear: Never underestimate these three aging indie-rock nerds from Hoboken, N.J.
“Pass the Hatchet” is a simple thing, really—just drummer Georgia Hubley laying down a steady snare-and-tambourine beat with a few forceful fills, bassist James McNew repeating a hypnotic four-note riff, and guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan cycling through various states of raw power and squiggly feedback while howling like he’s trapped at the bottom of an oil drum. Somehow, it seems to fly by. The song deserves all kinds of things: glory on iTunes, licensing for a car commercial, maybe a dance remix intended for sneaky insertion into the playlist of some loft party that you’ll never be invited to.
But more important, it adds some instant credibility to the disc’s title, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, which seems silly and unnecessarily ironic at first but makes plenty of sense once Track 1 finally fades. We will not go quietly, the song seems to say. Maybe no asses will be beaten—for starters, Kaplan is a former rock critic—but you will take things semi-seriously.
Then, of course, the band follows all that monumental squall with a fancy little piano-driven number called “Beanbag Chair.” Yup, so much for ass-beatings. “I’ve spent my life/Trying to understand/Just how my life led/To where I am,” Kaplan sings in his near-falsetto, and he maintains that tone of self-questioning for another two minutes or so, as Hubley and McNew keep up a jaunty pace. It’s lightweight, but as a geek-reassurance device, it’s pretty key. “Beanbag Chair” is only the beginning of the disc’s repurposing of ’60s sounds. It’s not a misstep—it’s half of a dialectic.
It’s important to note here that Yo La Tengo hasn’t exactly been flashing its record-worshipping side for mass consumption lately. Sure, there’s the laugh-a-minute, demo-quality cover-song collection, Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics, which came out earlier in 2006, but that was strictly for folks who’d actually schlep to Hoboken for the band’s we’ll-play-anything Hanukkah shows. (Even “Tijuana Taxi” gets a polka-speed workout.) The trio’s last proper album, 2003’s Summer Sun, had moments of garage-rock spontaneity, but it was often a mellow, dots-and-loops affair. And 2000’s well-shaped And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out was even more hushed, except for one Sonic Youth–style rave-up, “Cherry Chapstick.” For a half-decade, “modern quiet” has been Yo La Tengo’s prime directive.
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, by contrast, is exactly the kind of disc that should come from a smart, veteran band that loves hacking up a solid-gold tune, has played with everyone from Ray Davies to the Sun Ra Arkestra, and has found more and more work lately scoring films (the most notable being Junebug and the upcoming Shortbus by Hedwig and the Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell). Even the songs that reach back to the “core” Yo La Tengo sound—unassuming vocals, a bit of jangle, some Velvet Underground vibe—sound more emboldened than usual. “The Race Is On Again,” sung primarily by Hubley, wouldn’t be out of place on several of the band’s more straightforward ’90s albums, but it was obviously made with a fresh sense of mission. Hubley handles the melody, while husband Kaplan does some counterpoint, and they sound like a married couple finding a new way to flirt within familiar confines.
Hubley’s vocals are even more affecting on “I Feel Like Going Home,” a piano ballad that features violin by David Mansfield of Bob Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Revue. A bit icy, she sings lines such as “I can float above the ceiling/I like drifting through the air” with elegaic purpose. Likewise, her natural detachment is perfect for the droning bad-trip tale “The Room Got Heavy,” and she does a lot with a little during the cheery “The Weakest Part.” She probably should’ve sung the tender “Song for Mahila,” too; Kaplan’s Everyman delivery leaves the song mushier than it needed to be.
McNew—not known for handling many vocals on regular Yo La records—almost upstages both of them on the certifiably fab “Black Flowers,” where he respectfully mimics Davies, singing couplets such as “You can dip your brain in joy/When you find the real McCoy” over a well-arranged bed of strings and horns. It’s the kind of song that inspires hyperbole, or again, a grander setting than a simple rock record—Wes Anderson probably would’ve peed himself to use it in Rushmore or The Royal Tenenbaums.
Elsewhere, when Kaplan has the microphone, the results are either adventurous or forgivably corny. He’s great on the loungy “Sometimes I Don’t Get You,” where he thins out his voice even more than usual and tosses out choice nuggets such as “Sometimes I don’t know you/It’s like we never met/What seems fine by me/Is in your litany of regrets.” At other times, he’s the frontman of a white-soul act that takes Steely Dan’s Horace Silver/Stax-Volt jones in a sloppier, more human direction (“Mr. Tough”), or he’s crooning over a groove that borrows liberally from “Cool Jerk” and other mashed-potato ’60s hits (“Point and Shoot”). These are the sounds of a guy who has, perhaps, grown a wee bit bored with the Yo La Tengo template in the more than 20 years since the band started playing shows for friends. For further proof, the disc’s closing song—this time almost 12 minutes long—offers more of the guitar heroics and down-a-hole singing that get the album rolling in the first place. The title? “The Story of Yo La Tengo.”
There are lots of references to “trying with all our might to burn a playhouse down.” Take from them what you will.