Yo La Tengo - Fade (Matador)

I used to have a Yo La Tengo fantasy.

It involved pulling up in traffic next to a boyracer, one of those with the choons pumping so loud that his souped-up Toyota Starlet is visibly shaking on the street. I roll my window down, nod across at my friend, low-slung in his front seat, and slowly turn up my own car stereo. Playing is ‘Moby Octopad’, the second song on Yo La Tengo’s classic album I can hear the heart beating as one, a pounding, circular bassline which gathers bleeds of guitar feedback and hushed massed vocals to make a curious mixture of insistent but polite. It safely drowns out the boyracer’s disorganised clatter. He looks over at me, agog, no doubt taken aback that something so soft can be so loud. I drive off, satisfied.

Yo La Tengo are so much the prototype of the cultish indie band that they were the subject of a hilarious High Fidelity-ish parody by The Onion some years ago (http://store.theonion.com/p-4758-37-record-store-clerks-feared-dead-magnet.aspx). I consider myself a huge fan of the band but I’d lost touch with them a bit since their knockout 1-2 around the turn of the century, I can hear the heart… followed by And then nothing turned itself inside out a few years later. Fade is their 13th full length, and the first to be produced by John McEntire (Tortoise), and I must say I’m delighted and willing to be back in the club. It’s a concise and purposeful restatement of everything good about them, and contains some of their best ever tunes.

Opener ‘Ohm’, sung by James McNew, could almost be their theme tune, an oscillating drone with the refrain “resisting the flow” (if anybody’s ever done that, it’s Yo La Tengo). It distils two of the essential elements of the band – drifting kosmische meeting an alternative American guitar band.

Taking on that theme, the sublime ‘Cornelia and Jane’ has the perfect combination of thrumming acoustic guitar, the soft cooing of Georgia Hubley and gentle waves of brass. And ‘Stupid things’ is a plain love song sung by husband Ira, a beautiful late-VU-ish fizzing guitar drone with krautrock backbeat, which leaves room for the most gorgeous string section. (Strings show up on a few songs actually and – I could be wrong – but I think it’s a new element for them. If that’s right, I don’t feel like complaining they didn’t come around to them sooner, just rejoicing that they’re here now. ) In between, ‘Well you better’ and ‘Paddle forward’ hark back to their late 90’s output with concise, sparky indie tunes (the former in particular has an infectious, snakelike keyboard line – I suspect McNew may be the culprit).

Notable in the songwriting is a certain sense of a domestic relationship idyll, Ira’s fingerpicked acoustic guitar on ‘I’ll be around’ being the most prominent, pastoral example. It says a lot about the band that this type of tone doesn’t come off as exclusive or icky – on the contrary, McNew’s bass and synth contributions are key at all times.

Funnily enough, even though it’s a trim (by their standards) 10 tracks, the album’s highpoints for me are the three longest songs. Like the closing song ‘Before we run’, with Georgia again on vocals, positively thrilling with its swooping strings over a brass drone and clattering offbeat rhythm. Having found a good thing, it keeps it going, drum and guitar overdubs swirling in and out of the mix. It’s also like a flip on the intimacy theme, taking some similarly uplifting raw materials but putting them to work around an irresistible backbeat this time.

McEntire’s touch is also tangible throughout – a beautiful warm mix, cymbals very much to the fore, and acoustic and electronic elements merging organically (maybe he was even responsible for the suggestion of brass and strings? in which case, extra kudos). In fact, if you’re coming to this unique husband+wife+1 band for the first time, this might just be the perfect album to start with, summing them up as it does in bitesize proportions.

Although personal, even intimate, it’s completely engrossing and beguiling and up there for one of the albums of the year already.


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