"And the Glitter Is Gone", the final track on Yo La Tengo’s rewarding new album Popular Songs, opens with a fade-in, gradually immersing the listener in the pools and eddies of a groove whose source lies somewhere upstream. For someone expecting the well-defined intro of a conventional pop song, the effect is disconcerting. Yet it efficiently communicates a feeling that permeates the whole record: it’s not worth starting over.
"If It’s True" has a well-defined intro, but one cribbed straight from a classic Motown 45rpm. "Here To Fall" kicks off with the lingering, echo-drenched notes that stud Steve Miller’s Fly Like an Eagle and other stoner rock classics. But most of the tracks on the album, "And the Glitter Is Gone" included, recall Yo La Tengo songs more than anything else. As the album’s title wryly suggests – none of the tracks are destined to be "popular" in a traditional sense – Popular Songs rejects the notion that progress is measured in novelty.
Because Popular Songs is the work of mature artists – co-founders Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are nearing fifty – this message might initially seem like the self-serving wisdom of those who celebrate continuity in order to suggest that they are still relevant. But as a listen to the early Yo La Tengo material on Ride the Tiger amply testifies, they were never that interested in starting over.
Like other rock acts that formed in the wake of hardcore’s implosion, including The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Stone Roses, and The Smashing Pumpkins, Yo La Tengo made a point of reconnecting with the towering musical legacy of the 1960s, even as they celebrated the disruptive power of punk. They wanted to have their beauty and ravage it too. In Yo La Tengo’s case, however, the reluctance to choose between hippie and punk, Brill Building and CBGBs, delicacy and brute force was so pronounced that the band struggled to make a distinct impression.
Although Yo La Tengo’s music appealed to concert-goers who saw them opening for bands like Dinosaur Jr. and My Bloody Valentine, they failed to make a major impact during the alternative culture explosion of the early 1990s. It wasn’t until the Nirvana era had faded from view, when sugary pop acts like the Backstreet Boys and not-so-conscious rappers like the Notorious B.I.G. were dominating the charts, that Yo La Tengo’s remarkable musical consistency was truly rewarded.
Their 1997 album I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One didn’t break new ground. But its disarming combination of noisy guitar bursts and diaphanous vocals resonated with music lovers who were still coming to terms with the realization that the alternative rock revolution had been retroactively downgraded into a short-lived disturbance. Yo La Tengo finally found itself on the top of the college radio heap because their sound mirrored those station’s eclectic playlists.
A prime cut of Velvet Underground, a healthy portion of vintage Stax soul, plenty of Television, and a few slices of Fleetwood Mac, seasoned with more recent influences like The Dream Syndicate, REM and The Clean all blended together to give Yo La Tengo the taste of sophisticated comfort food. They paid tribute to their musical forebears, while also distilling the essence of fellow alternative rock bands undone by the drugs and money of the early 1990s. In short, the band was a music critic’s dream. And that made sense, since Ira Kaplan had been a music critic before starting the band.
But it also annoyed people who should have been celebrating Yo La Tengo’s rise from also-ran to leaders of the indie rock pack. As good as Yo La Tengo’s records were, they still sounded like climate-controlled simulations of artists whose maddening inconsistency were a big part of their charm. Even more than Sonic Youth, another alternative rock survivor periodically critiqued for making avant-garde notions too safe, Yo La Tengo suffered the ignominy of having their shit together in a world where mistakes are considered a sign of artistic integrity. Eventually, as Yo La Tengo’s detractors matured and a new generation of artists started paying homage to them, the band slipped on the mantle of respected rock elders. The very people who had once grumbled that Yo La Tengo made wonderful music without much sense of wonder now praised their professionalism and respect for tradition. While the band surely appreciated the irony in this reversal of fortune, it did nothing to change their course. Pressing on with the same sense of purpose
– Ira Kaplan once described the band to CMJ magazine as "inner-directed"
– that had sustained them during their years of being overshadowed, they kept making music of the same quality as before. The main reason for Yo La Tengo’s remarkable stability is that Kaplan and Hubley have been happily married since 1987. Part of the fascination with rock bands is that most of them function like bad marriages, with a messy break-up always looming on the horizon. Some, like Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, keep getting back together again, only to realize that the problems that led to their last divorce haven’t disappeared in the interim. When a band revolves around an actual marriage, though, and one that meets most people’s standard of success, the storm and stress of musical collaboration takes a back seat.
It’s no accident that Yo La Tengo and Sonic Youth, whose founding members Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon have also been married for a long time, are the two alternative rock bands that have managed to survive the ups-and-downs of the music industry with the least disruption to their production schedule over the past two decades. And that’s troubling for music lovers invested in the notion that rock music is for the men and women who make like rolling stones. Fidelity to one’s musical ancestors may be regarded as a virtue, but other modes of faithfulness are not.
In Yo La Tengo’s case, however, making a distinction between life and art proves impossible. Interviewed with her sister Emily about what it was like to grow up as the daughters of the award-winning animators John and Faith Hubley, Georgia Hubley suggested that, although she and Ira work very differently than her parents did, in a medium that requires less structure and planning, "the way our life is, is really similar." Their partnership doesn’t survive in spite of their musical career, but because of it. Hubley also notes that her parents taught her to be "independently minded," a statement rendered poignant by the fact that her father was blacklisted in the early 1950s because he wouldn’t name names before HUAC. He was able to reconstruct his career, with Faith at his side, and become an Academy Award-winning filmmaker. But their art emerged from the sort of struggle that artists who came of age after the early1960s rarely had to face.
Perhaps Yo La Tengo, for all of their devotion to the history of rock and roll, are actually a throwback to that postwar era, when fidelity to one’s past wasn’t a sign of conservatism at all, but of a refusal to renounce radical beliefs. Celebrating continuity means something quite different in that context. If Yo La Tengo is imaginatively honoring that legacy, it makes perfect sense that their most famous concerts take place as part of a fundraising drive for hometown record station WFMU in Hoboken. Since 1996, the band has generously volunteered to play, on the air, any cover request that comes in with a sufficient donation attached. From classic rock staples to TV themes, punk fury to easy listening, they have done their best with all manner of tunes, some of which were collected on the Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics compilation.
Yo La Tengo also puts on Hannukah-themed shows at Maxwell‘s in Hoboken each year, a different sort of testament to their conviction that keeping something going can be much more significant than starting from scratch. Popular Songs probably won’t win the bands that many new fans. Their stewardship of the soundtrack to the film Adventureland was more likely to do that. But the album does enough to remind listeners why they should keep coming back for more. The fourth track "Nothing To Hide," a short rave-up shrouded in garage rock fuzz, is probably the least original song on the record. Yet it holds the power to keep fans’ passion burning long after it should have gone out. Sometimes the true miracle is keeping the faith.