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Don't Call it a Comeback
Yo La Tengo
I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass
After digesting Yo La Tengo's last two records, the sublime "And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out" (2000) and the somewhat sedate "Summer Sun" (2003), I thought perhaps they had entered their twilight years as a band. After 20 years of recording, touring and slowly but surely becoming indie rock icons the band, composed of guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and relative newcomer James McNew on bass, had absolutely nothing left to prove. Why not just ride off into the sunset and every few years toss out a new album of mellow, adult, dare I say easy listening songs? They've earned it. It turns out I was completely wrong. And I couldn't be happier.
Yo La Tengo's new record, fearlessly titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, does exactly that, and it does it in so many different ways. Feedback-drenched scorcher? Check. Jangly, feel-good pop ditty? Check. Hushed, heart-squeezing ballad? It's there along with much, much more.
The first track, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," starts things off with a swift kick in the teeth. Bass and drums immediately lock into a hypnotic groove that simultaneously grounds and propels the song. Kaplan starts picking at his guitar almost as if he had forgotten what his instrument could do, and 10 minutes later he's still spitting notes like a Tesla coil. It's a hell of a way to open an album, and it's unfathomable why the band didn't just extend the song for another, oh, 70 minutes because I wouldn’t have minded one bit.
The rest of the album showcases Yo La Tengo doing what they do best... which is everything. "Beanbag Chair" and "Mr. Tough," with lots of piano, upbeat drumming and thick, bouncing bass lines, are kicks to the ass urging listeners to get up and dance. "I Feel Like Going Home" and "Black Flowers" aim for the heart. Hushed vocals, strings and even a tuba show up, and these combinations not only work but they never sound clichéd or sappy. The only song that seems even remotely out of place is the delicate, sparse, atmospheric instrumental "Daphnia." Although gorgeous in its own right, the meandering piece felt like the band taking a long, deep breath before finishing the sonic pummeling they had initiated. But the more I listened to the album the more it became apparent that this aural rest stop exists for the benefit of listeners, allowing us to pause, gather our bearings and prepare to be knocked out by the album's finale.
"The Story of Yo la Tengo" bookends I Am Not Afraid with another epic, feedback drenched assault in which drone, static and blissy white noise are layered on top of each other for a full two minutes before an echo of a beat becomes perceptible. The tempo builds and the song slowly explodes with guitars crashing into each other and Kaplan's voice somehow penetrating the haze, like someone talking underwater, pleading and promising, “We tried so hard…. We tried so hard.” The story of Yo la Tengo indeed.
What's amazing about Yo La Tengo is that no matter what guise they take or what influence they pay homage to, their music never seems forced or fake. From punk to jazz to pop and back again they incorporate an infinite variety of styles while always sounding like themselves. With I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass Yo La Tengo has accomplished an even more remarkable feat, creating a career-spanning greatest hits album comprised entirely of new material.
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