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Yo La Tengo - I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass Print E-mail
Sunday, 01 October 2006

Yo La Tengo   

I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8
sound:    8
release year:    2006
label:    Matador
reviewed by:    Matt Fink

ImageThough Sonic Youth and the Fall appear to be exceptions to the rule, if an indie rock band has the good fortune of lasting over a decade without imploding from internal pressure or running out of money, very few of them hit the 10-year mark with much creativity left.

Robert Pollard has pulled the plug on Guided by Voices, Grandaddy has split, and Pavement had been running on fumes for years by the time they celebrated a decade. Having passed the 22-year mark this year, indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo blew past their 10-year anniversary long ago but have appeared to be running low on ideas for a few albums now.

The last time we saw the Hoboken trio they were continuing their exploration of serenely understated but needlessly repetitive pop on 2003’s Summer Sun, continuing a trend toward pleasant but ponderous sonic soundscapes and away from the eclecticism of their definitive work. And while most fans were willing to grant them the liberty to explore album-long dream pop jams, for the first time there were whispers that the band’s excursions into soundtrack work indicated that they were in need of a serious kick in the pants. I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass provides it.

As if they were just discovering rock and roll for the first time, their provocatively titled 12th studio release is a spirited stylistic grab bag that is as varied and unpredictable as their last three albums have been singularly focused. From the snarling psychedelic riff rock that opens the disc with “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” through to the noisy drone rock of the closing “The Story of Yo La Tango,” the album is a 15-song, 77-minute reminder of just how Yo La Tengo became indie rock legends.
Largely, they accomplish this by steering away from their well-established mastery of drone-pop dynamics toward decidedly more organic and lighthearted material. In fact, the album can be split fairly evenly into three categories of songs: softly playful piano pop, giddily carefree riff-rockers, and the expansively dreamy material of their last handful of releases.

As the band hasn’t flexed their collective tunesmith muscles in some time, the sheer immediacy of the hooks on the album is startling at first listen. The giddily prancing piano and softly swinging trumpets of “Beanbag Chair” make for one of the most perfectly carefree pop songs in the band’s deep catalog, with vocalists Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley joining in a soft call-and-response. Similarly unexpected is the calypso soul of “Mr. Tough,” with Kaplan’s willfully silly falsetto sitting perfectly on funkily staggering piano chords, swaggering trumpets and a popping cow bell balanced by the dainty clip-clopping piano and wistful Hubley vocal on the serene “The Weakest Part.”

As proven by this year’s Yo La Tengo Murders the Classics – an odds and sods collection of covers the band has done by request at radio shows – Yo La Tengo has a near-comprehensive understanding of rock history and a near-fearless willingness to explore it. The fuzzy swirling organ and frantic drumming of “I Should Have Known” show that the band hasn’t lost any of their affection for Nuggets-era garage rock, as does the chugging post-rockabilly stomp of bassist James McNew’s “Watch Out for Me Ronnie” that follows. More familiar is the Byrdsy jangle pop of “The Race is on Again,” with Kaplan’s 12-string electric guitar weaving pensive lassos around his and Hubley’s reassuringly cooed rejoinders.

Though much of the album’s character is founded on the less serious moments, it would be very wrong to assume that the album is therefore clogged with insubstantial throwaways. The burned out atmosphere and plaintively understated Hubley vocal in “I Feel Like Going Home” clearly evoke the song’s title, with bittersweet violin lines and thoughtfully probing guitar lines adding to the sense of loss and longing. Even better is the beautifully sighing “Black Flowers,” a gorgeous patchwork of bubbling strings and woodwinds that ranks among the best chamber pop songs to appear since the Left Banke retired their string section.

Given that Yo La Tengo made their reputation on their deep knowledge of the rock canon and their ability to combine a myriad of influences into a distinctly original whole, this album works as a de facto showcase of everything they’ve done well. Always an outstanding guitarist, Ira Kaplan sounds positively invigorated, snapping off some of his most antisocially scrambled riffs ever to grace a Tengo album on “Pass the Hatchet…” More than anything, this sounds like a band having fun again, settling down in the studio with no particular game plan and coming out with an album that is unified only by the sense that everything sounds like it was produced by a band that never knew what the next song was going to sound like.

All in all, I’m Not Afraid of You is nothing new, even for Yo La Tengo, but for a band that has donned nearly every stylistic shade at one time or another, the only thing that remained for them was to wear them all at once. All of the eclectic shape-shifting does leave the album without a clear conceptual center, and it’s unlikely to ever eclipse their more definitively focused efforts. What is likely is that it will emerge as one of their most loved lesser works, the album that you reach for when you’re on a road trip and want to hear one band play their own private mix tape for you.

Ranging from crisply textured arrangements of strings and horns to hazy layers of guitar and organ distortion, the album’s 15 tracks are appropriately and consistently produced. Ultimately, little has changed about the way their albums have been produced over the last 15 years, and they’ve never made the transition to glossy hi-fidelity. As usual, the band opts for reverb and wall-of-sound unison over meticulous precision or polish. As always, it suits them perfectly.

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