Yo La Tengo
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
hen asked, my friend Andy confessed to having seen Yo La Tengo 46 times.
“Well, they’re your favorite band, right?”
“I guess… I mean, I haven’t thought of them in that way for a long time.”
What I didn’t ask was “How long has it been? Did you stop calling them your favorite band when they released a 36-minute EP covering one Sun Ra song four times? Or was it when they started their perennial tour as a house drone for Painlevé’s marine life documentaries? Was it because Summer Sun was… kind of boring?”
Yo La Tengo have been releasing records for 20 years. Remarkably, none of them are bad. None of them are alienating, either. It’s simple: people like Yo La Tengo in part because they feel like they could be in Yo La Tengo. They’re sweet plebes. Record nerds. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley have been together for 25 years; their songs are about the nuances of monogamy, not who they nail on tour. It’s a ball Weezer dropped and Belle and Sebastian have been carrying tenuously for a decade.
Twenty years into his career, Bob Dylan had made Self-Portrait and Street Legal. Ray Charles had Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music and the Rolling Stones recorded disco songs—rogue, hard-headed, dumb artistry. Yo La Tengo are too considerate to make a bad record. They have made especially great records though, and I Am Not Afraid of You isn’t one of them.
All of their records are too long—most since 1995’s Electr-O-Pura have been over 70. Length is a moot point. They’re consistently self-indulgent, but they’re long past the point of impressing potential fans; the fans they have don’t seem to mind. The difference here is that And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Painful were mood albums; they sustained a glow that made their lengths less noticeable. I Am Not Afraid of You is as hyper-eclectic as 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One, but feels less synthesized. Not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make the band seem dilettantish, especially when they slip into bald if pleasant genre exercises like the Stax-lite/bugalu of “Mr. Tough” or the acidic rockabilly of “Watch Out for Me Ronnie.”
Mostly though, it’s status quo. There are a few 70s-style soft-pop songs about how much Ira loves Georgia; the meanest, most brazen thing he musters is “sometimes I don’t get you.” There’s a song that sounds like the Byrds, a song written by bassist James McNew, and a drafty instrumental in the middle.
And appropriately, the best stuff is still the foggy, horizon-chasing psychedelia that they’ve been playing for years. Album-opening “Pass Me the Hatchet, I’m Goodkind” is an 11-minute defibrillator for Summer Sun with half of a verse, a bassline to slay Moebius, and light years of groove for Ira to freak the fuck out in. “I Should Have Known Better” is the sweetened, condensed version; “The Room Got Heavy” is the paranoid doper’s version, and “The Story of Yo La Tengo” is actually the passion of Sonic Youth: four minutes to approach the storm, two or three to twist in it, and five to flutter away. Though the whole record sounds great, long-time producer Roger Moutenot gives the psych-y songs an addictive, hot, close feel.
The concluding paragraph of a record review is always a dependable nest for tropes. Here’s one: “if this is a new turn for ____, I can’t wait to hear where they take us next.” Here’s another: “if this is a new turn for ____, I’m going to stay at home and listen to their old records and harrumph.” I Am Not Afraid demands new clichés: Yo La Tengo are sitting still. Yo La Tengo can’t “return to form” because they never deviate from it. They promised a safe haven in 1997 when Georgia sang “we could hide away in our little corner of the world.” They kept that promise. They’ve watched sunsets over Hoboken for 20 years and they like them. “Here’s a fold-out chair,” they say, patting the seat.