Sometimes I feel like all of Yo La Tengo’s albums, which are all very, very long and sound almost exactly the same as each other, are each almost exactly as good as each other, too. Which is why I’m picking three of them here; it would seem churlish to leave any of these out, and the only reason it doesn’t seem churlish to ignore 2009’s Popular Songs (which sounds almost exactly the same as each of these, and is almost exactly as good) is because, for whatever reason, it never struck me as much as these three did.
As an aside, I remember buying 2003’s Summer Sun in Exeter HMV, and the guy who sold it to me asking: “What’s this like?”, to which I had to reply, rather more abruptly than I would have liked: “I don’t know, I haven’t listened to it yet,” which I thought should have been self-evident from the fact that it was still shrink-wrapped. We were, I guess, in post-Napster times, but even a decade on I still like to buy albums having not heard anything from them yet.
No matter what style Yo La Tengo, who celebrate their 30th anniversary as a band in 2014 I believe, turn their hand to – buzzing noise rock, country, jazz, Velvets chug, Motown soul, soporific ambient, straight-ahead indie pop, infinite drone, etcetera etcetera – and no matter which band member sings, all their songs sound exactly like Yo La Tengo all the way through (a confession – we have all the records from Electr-O-Pura onwards, but nothing from before, so early stuff may not adhere to this rule). Their records are like a warm blanket, or a big bowl of mashed potato, or a Chocolate Orange at Christmas – familiar, comforting, not exactly exciting, but, when you want one, absolutely the best thing in the world.
To differentiate between the three named above, though, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is the quietest, most gentle of the trio; practically an ambient album, laced with gently reassuring hooks and melodies, crepuscular textures, and all played at a pace which makes a Slow Loris look like Usain Bolt. It’s wonderful, beautiful, and soporific, which in any other context could be read as a pejorative adjective, but honestly isn’t here.
Summer Sun, by contrast, is upbeat, poppy, jazzy (and well over quarter of an hour shorter), while at the same time still being stately and mature. At the time it seemed like people felt a bit disappointed with it, but for the life of me I can’t see why; possibly it was the first time a new Yo La Tengo record just sounded like “a Yo La Tengo record”, but the songs, to my ears, are as strong and melodic as anything else I’ve heard by them.
The faint disappointment that greeted Summer Sun lead many to declare I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass a “return to form” (which often, in my experience, means “I’m sorry, but I was into something else there for six months when you released your last album”); whatever, it’s the most raucous of the three, starting with a squalling 11-minute guitar-noise epic with a crazy title (“Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”) and a relentless groove, which is followed by seven perfect, memorable, eclectic, melodic, elegaic pop songs in a row (which take in brass, feedback, Farfisa, bongos, and more), then another groove, then some noisy songs, and finally another elongated epic (“The Story Of Yo La Tango”, sic). If I’m totally honest, I seldom make it past “Daphnia”, the wonderful central groove, and at the time I felt like the whole record was mastered a touch too brutally. But those first 9 tracks (which last about 48 minutes) are so good that I can let the album’s failings as a whole go without much consternation.
Yo La Tengo aren’t a band I would or have ever got passionate about; I don’t feel any profound sense of ownership of or connection to their music, and suspect I never will. They seem to have hit upon the default formula for or platonic essence of the sound of American alternative rock music, their albums both historical records of and blueprints for an entire aesthetic and ethos. They’re pretty wonderful.