Drawing inspiration from the hazy, shimmering magic of the Velvet Underground, Yo La Tengo has been blending the yin and yang of noise and beauty for more than a quarter century. Sometimes they'll mix these twin impulses on the same album, but mostly they tend to alternate between low-key understated pop and ragged rock roar from album to album.
In March of last year, they released Fuckbook, an album of gritty, grime-coated garage-inspired covers under the pseudonym Condo Fucks. So it's perhaps not surprising that they should follow this past fall with the more sedate, meditative Popular Songs. Over the years, the styles employed in their quieter moments have expanded well-beyond the hypnotic drone of Velvets touchstone "Pale Blue Eyes," as singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan, a former rock critic, demonstrates the breadth of his tastes. So while in tone and pace Popular Songs recalls 2003's Summer Sun, its explorations are even more libertine.
Indeed, the genre-hopping is dizzying. They run through everything — R&B-soaked shimmy ("If It's True"), with an opening cadged from the Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)"; '70s soft rock sway ("I'm on My Way"); minimalist instrumental 11-minute space rock ("The Fireside"); '60s folk jangle ("When It's Dark"); and, naturally, drifting Velvet-een pop buzz ("Avalon or Someone Very Similar"). Only two tracks truly quicken the pulse — the nine-minute throb of "More Stars than Are In Heaven," which could teach the legions of nü-gazers a thing or two about copping from fellow Velvets-acolytes My Bloody Valentine; and "Nothing To Hide," with its distorted, organ-aided rumble and a searing guitar solo.
Although it's easy to gravitate toward one end or the other of Yo La Tengo's oeuvre, they are such consummate craftsmen (and woman) — with such a firm grasp of their antecedents — that it's hard to quibble with anything they release. Whether entrancing or energetic, they make some damn fine music.
Yo La Tengo plays Friday, Jan. 22, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333. With Times New Viking.
Chris Parker writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].