I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, Yo La Tengo (Matador, 2006)
What do fans expect from long-established, long-loved bands? When we love them for what they are, are we really loving them just for what they’ve done for us in the past? How far are we, any of us, from Homer Simpson yelling out for “Taking Care of Business” when Bachman-Turner Overdrive play the Springfield State Fair? We want them to do something new, right, but still kind of the same?
A brief tour, with these questions in mind, of what Yo La Tengo is offering us somewhere around the 20-year-mark of their existence as a band:
(But first, about the title: Unexpected but so like our Hoboken Heroes. They would like you to believe they are afraid of you and could never beat your ass. But watch your back.)
Yo La Tengo is a restless band that nevertheless relies on grooves, tropes, and the familiarity of years of playing together. The album’s opener, “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” (there must be some kind of drug reference in there, right?), gives a suitable illustration. This 11-minute jam is built around a tight bass groove that James McNew repeats with only two or three variations; Georgia Hubley’s tasty drumming locks onto the groove perfectly, and Ira Kaplan’s guitar work is then free to spread out while he sings just enough to keep the song from being purely instrumental. It’s a song strategy Yo La Tengo have employed many times before, but in this case they manage an urgency and an energy that are more head-clearing than haze-inducing. While still sounding very much like themselves.
They don’t sound so much like themselves at other points on the album. The horns and bouncy English-dance-hall piano that open the second song, “Beanbag Chair,” completely unexpected — the band’s legendary eclecticism usually only extends so far. But then Ira starts singing and James and Georgia come in on backup and it’s them again.
The band’s two full-lengths after I Can Hear the Heart Beat as One were noticeably more coherent than that wide-ranging album. Both And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (2000) and Summer Sun (2003) took the painfully introspective parts of Heart and refined them into hushed and haunting songs that, at their best, made you cry despite yourself. But the quiet was disconcerting, and we wanted more energy, more rock and noise, from this very noisy trio.
In the three years since YLT released Summer Sun, they’ve put out a few EPs (one of which, Today Is the Day, truly will kick your ass), a three-disk best-of compilation, and several film soundtracks. The Today Is the Day EP, especially, was a bit of a make-up for the lack of rock in the two full-lengths, and the band has played energetic live sets even in the depths of its blue period — while highlighting the breathtaking beauty of a number of songs from those two albums. Still, Ass comes at you a bit frenetically, as if the band is saying, “You want a full length? Here’s your effing full length!”
But there’s a twist. For years it’s been pretty accurate shorthand to describe YLT as the inheritor of the brainy New York downtown noise rock crown that passed from the Velvet Underground to Sonic Youth before hopping over the Hudson to Hoboken. On Ass, though, YLT’s love of the ’60s has instead taken the form of a psychedelic-tinged garage-band ethos on many of the songs, particularly “The Room Got Heavy” and “Point and Shoot.” (Although Georgia’s drumming on the latter track is something few garage rockers could even contemplate.) “Watch out for Me Ronnie” also has a garage vibe, although it also channels a punk energy and a self-consciously retro ’50s thing that hints at Jonathan Richman.
“I Should Have Known Better” blends garage with pop in a knowing style worthy of the Flamin’ Groovies. “Sometimes I Don’t Get You” is ’60s pop in waltz time, with lite jazz stylings that mask Ira’s falsetto relationship worries. “The Weakest Part” takes the pop sound into the ’70s with the vaguely country tinge that YLT mastered as far back as Fakebook. Another strong but odd ’60s throwback element are the quick fades at the end of about half the songs on the album, like an AM-radio DJ tiring of the last chorus and eager to get on to the next disk or commercial spot.
The album does contain some typical YLT songs. Mid-tempo rocker “The Race Is on Again” could have been on Heart or anything else the band recorded in the ’90s. “I Feel Like Going Home” is another of the beautiful, bittersweet, Hubley-sung numbers that have been cropping up frequently lately (this one with violin by David Mansfield of the Rolling Thunder Revue). “Daphnia” is one more in a long line of lovely instrumentals, and the lullaby “Song for Mahila” would have been at home on either of the band’s last two albums.
“Mr. Tough” throws off the album continuity more than any other song, but it’s closely in line with James’s sense of humor and in particular his side project, dump, who recorded a sublime album of Prince covers called That Skinny Motherfucker with the High Voice. And the closer, another 11-minute jam (“The Story of Yo La Tango” — the spelling, as James says, is the kind of sick, Mr. Show-type joke that is bound to cause way more trouble than it’s worth), is as worthy of another bong hit as anything YLT has ever committed to tape.
The strongest song on the album may be “Black Flowers,” which is also the one that sounds least like either some kind of ’60s nod or a classic YLT song. It kind of sounds (I hate to say it — I’m afraid Ira really would beat my ass) like what you wish Coldplay sounded like — there’s emotion, but it’s not maudlin; there are strings and horns and a dramatic bridge, but they hold back just enough. In fact, this is the song where that quick fade at the end makes the biggest difference — you want more, but the song leaves you.
What threw me about this album at first is the differences in production between the songs. Roger Moutenot, YLT’s long-time producer, is a master at achieving the warm-but-distorted YLT sound, and he can maintain it consistently through a variety of genres. That sound is present on plenty of the songs here — “The Race Is On” and “The Room Got Heavy,” for example — but things are much more raw on the more garage-y numbers. It’s the willingness to stray from a sound palette that’s been established since 1993′s Painful that may be most surprising about this disk. (The production includes some inspired moments, by the way, like the slight giggle that starts the album and the atmospherics underlying “Daphnia.”)
All in all? Well, it’s hard to say what I wanted, but I’m happy with what I got. Yo La Tengo is a restless band, and the three members interact in unpredictable ways. Ass has some surprises and some throwbacks. Best of all, it shows the band is still alive and breathing, showing every sign of life and even a little perkier than it’s been in recent years.