I lead with an admission, and a daring one at that. Though their career spans 16 records, and is this year celebrating its' silver anniversary, somehow, someway, the frenetic sounds that Yo La Tengo have been churning out of Hoboken New Jersey all these years has eluded me. Which makes the trio's latest release, Popular Songs (Matador), a first. Never have I ever pulled up a chair with any one part of the band's mighty catalogue. Criminal, I know.
Nevertheless, I suspect I'm not the only chump to fall into this category. And for folks like myself the ignorant, out of touch fools that we are - Popular Songs provides a splendid introduction to Yo La Tengo's obvious expertise. Opener "Here to Fall" comes hopped up on the manic fuzz; a song sliced and diced with crashing cymbals, tasteful string arrangements, and hazy billows of bass and synths. It's a cacophonous soundtrack for killer sunbeams, squinty views, and the kind of hot and humid days that are, so sad to say, behind us now.
There are similar efforts to Popular Songs' point of departure, though they really don't appear until the album begins to trail off. Until then, the band delivers a variety of elixirs for the listener to swish and swig on. "By Two's" is something sort of sedate; a thick and synthy drop of almost-electro that rewards multiple listens, particularly with head phones pressed tight to the noggin. "Nothing to Hide" is a boppy little wonder crafted with well-warn Chuck Taylors and the shaggiest of hairdos in mind. Then there's "Periodically Triple or Double"; a sneaky batch of unexpected funk, complete with a jazzed out bridge, distorted electric piano, and Ira Kaplan's snazzy vocal leads.
When the headier, fuzzed out jams return, they do so in magnificent, omni-present ways. "More Stars Than There Are In Heaven" is a mighty crescendo of a song that's the shortest of the bunch (it's over nine minutes long). "The Fireside" comes built upon carouseling bass lines, reverb laden acoustic guitar, and electric swells that suck the listener deep inside its' introspective chamber. And "And The Glitter Is Gone" is Popular Songs' 16-minute finale; an instrumental fit of psychedelic guitar that shouts like God and glory from the mountaintops.
In the end, it's an exceptional vessel Popular Songs provides in which to take my very first dip in Yo La Tengo's legendary sea of work. What else lies below the hull? Long time fans and appreciators of the band already know. But if you're like me a sucker, a green horn, an absolute amateur Popular Songs is a fantastic jumping off point, providing plenty of reason to begin tracing through Yo La Tengo's incredible back catalogue. David Pitz