Tuesday, December 05, 2006

I Am Not Afraid Of The Hype For The New Yo La Tengo Record

. . . but "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" will still beat my ass

Yo La Tengo have been pissing me off. Last year, they put out a fake best-of that had plenty of great songs on it but was hardly definitive (where the fuck was either version of "Today Is The Day") and only made me want to hear the albums with the missing tracks whenever I played it. It created a semi-context for some excellent toss-offs ("Drug Test," "Nuclear War" and "Upside-Down") but sold them short once again by stacking them up beside established juggernauts like "Autumn Sweater" and "Tom Courtenay," that already have cozier homes. And the rarities disc and liner notes sucked.

This July, promo copies of the first new YLT record in three years surfaced, with the last minute cut off of each track to cleverly outflank the downloaders until, you know, the first week of the album's official release. Nevertheless, the album was sweeping, long, and good, if forgettable. And I take it as a pretty conscious adversity to the meh reaction to the previous, quieter Summer Sun that this one was loud as a motherfucker even if it's just as aimless as their drones. I delayed my opinion, figuring it was made to be heard live. They agreed; assholes at the Pitchfork Music Festival, they played a too-short set with nothing but songs from it, when it wasn't even out yet. Yeah, I recognized a few--it's hard to forget the show/album opener, "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," three throbbing, feedbacking notes over and over for eleven straight minutes, or Soul Train send-up "Mr. Tough," with Ira singing in Beck/Prince/Stipe/Ween/Jimmy Fallon falsetto--but it was hard to enjoy a set of anything once it became clear we weren't getting any "Sugarcube." Then I missed the show in Jersey City that they opened with "Sugarcube." So I pretty much hated this band by the time the new album officially came out, and I refused to listen to it since the festival.

Back in 2003, things were great. They had just released the ultra-beautiful Summer Sun which bored the rest of the world, but was my #2 album of 2003 (behind Cursive's The Ugly Organ), possibly my favorite Yo La Tengo record (it's a tough tie with I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, which I'm still convinced has more filler), and became the third Yo La Tengo record ever to enter my all-time list. Everyone kind of B'd it and moved on, frustrated that it wasn't as easy to pigeonhole as the previous . . . And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (late-night balladry) or the now months-old I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass (classic rock eclecticism). It was more like lounge eclecticism, a description that puts off everyone, what with its two greatest peaks hooked to Hawaiian guitar ("Today Is The Day") and name-dropping dream-funk ("Moonrock Mambo"). But pigeonhole as you'd like, you can't say it's not beautiful. From the forward-driving, harmonized "Little Eyes" to the Georgia-lulled Big Star cover "Take Care" to the neon-bright sunshine pop of "Season Of The Shark" to the ambient-jazz opener "Beach Party Tonight," Summer Sun delivered the sunniest mellow music in recent memory, a sugary mix Elliott Smith and Cat Power couldn't touch on their least teary days. It lived up to its title in a way most records don't and most Yo La Tengo records usually do. Examples: Electr-O-Pura gleefully wallows in its pure electronic drone, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One is truly a marraige of love sounds and love literal, and Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics indeed murders the classics. In keeping, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass beats the shit out of foolish Summer Sun-haters who thought they were done rocking, starting with the aforementioned eleven full minutes of vein-bulging three-chord distorto-pulse, the kind these guys mastered all the way back on 1993's Painful. The chief selling point of the album (and its biggest cause of criticism), is that it merely recycles a grab bag of old Yo La Tengo ideas and doesn't bother cohering over 77 minutes. This hasn't been a problem for it critically, as Summer Sun put people to sleep while sticking to a theme.

Today I walked into CD World in Totowa, NJ and find a used copy of the new record for $5.99 (Amazon's lowest is $11.99), which, fully examined, contains no marks of a promo or any excuses to be so low-priced, unless you count the typo in "The Story Of Yo La Tango" on the back cover's tracklist. Cheap records by great bands are usually great times to reevaluate their less great records. So I let bygones be bygones and bought it. Familiar drones sounded more exciting than I remembered, and the drony stuff even beats the poppy stuff in retrospect. Try the psychedelic fusion jam "The Room Got Heavy," which sounds like a dub mix of Belle & Sebastian's "Legal Man" elongated in a fishtank, or the stun-gun organ stabs that punctuate each line of "Point And Shoot," which cascades into a dueling piano-plink/guitar-wrench epilogue. The obvious ear candies, "Mr. Tough," and "Beanbag Chair," didn't annoy like I expected second time around, but weren't definitive like past Yo La pop songs. There's certainly no "Sugarcube" or "You Can Have It All" here, and this is also the first Yo La Tengo album without a quirky cover tune since 1995, so no "My Little Corner Of The World" either. If anything, this is the album that proves those grating organ-and-noise jams at the end of previous YLT albums weren't just lovably failed experiments. Maybe you don't need 8:51 of "Daphinia"'s languid rain-patter, but it certainly beats anything on their like-minded soundtrack The Sound Of The Sounds Of Science. Part of the genius of Beat Your Ass is that it mostly takes things the band has tried to do in the past and got halfway, and finally completes them. So call the pretty piano swing of "Sometimes I Don't Get You" or the swollen organ-garage throwaway "I Should've Known Better" cleaned-off missing links in the Yo La Tengo sonic palette. The truly epic "The Story Of Yo La Tengo" closes the album on another distended twelve minutes that prove there's still somewhere they'll take you. Maybe there's room for a fourth YLT record in my all-time pantheon after all.

Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass: A-


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