Yo La Tengo – Fade
There’s a great line in the tragically defunct Starz! comedy series Party Down, when the cast of catering irregulars is working the funeral for a well-respected businessman and receive some matronly advice about love from the man’s widow. In the best Aged-African-American-Fount-of-Wisdom tradition (cue Spike Lee howling), the lady warns: “Forget fireworks, you don’t want something that blows all bright then fades. You know what love is? It’s a crockpot—not flashy, not exciting—but cooks at a low heat—day in and day out, and won’t fade. I’m guessing your girlfriend has got herself a crockpot.” Unfortunately, this lesson is promptly turned on its head when it’s revealed that the marriage was an open one, but the point remains—one articulated ever so conveniently by Fade, Yo La Tengo’s thirteenth full-length album over a career (and marriage!) spanning over a quarter of a century and displaying an almost unfair sense of creative stability and consistency that has led to quasi-demeaning terms like “the quintessential critic’s band.” Also, Adam Scott probably listens to a lot of Yo La Tengo.
The Hoboken trio (husband/wife duo Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan and bass player James McNew) has long moved past reliable territory and is now well into the foundational, revealing an album simple and immediate in its concepts yet gorgeously honed by experience. Fade is content to settle in on a quiet, pop-inflected sound that the group has been moving towards ever since the early ‘90s, with the nearest musical landmark being 2003’s hushed, vastly underrated Summer Sun. Their more recent albums have seen the band opening up to a wider palette than longtime fans might be comfortable with—chamber pop strings and bluesy templates sprinkled here and there amidst the ten-minute-plus noise jams—but on Fade, the subtle dips into Motown or surf rock or ‘60s soul are natural outgrowths of a Yo La Tengo sound that already feels classic. Playing spot the influence is tempting, but at this point Yo La Tengo are the influence, mixing and matching Electr-O-Pura’s spindly guitar textures with Popular Songs’ crisp chamber-pop production and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out’s meditative, crackling atmospherics. And that’s just on “Stupid Things.”
Despite being bookended by two six-minute-and-change pieces, Fade clocks in at just a shade over forty-five minutes, an unusually concise turn for the band and a testament to new producer John McEntire (Tortoise, The Sea and the Cake), who is only the second producer the band has worked with since 1993(!). He brings an affinity for additional orchestration—most notably the lovely, somber horn work on “Cornelia and Jane” and the increasingly complex layers of instrumentation, particularly the perfect saxophone, that runs through “Before We Run”—that provides a nice segue with the band’s work on 2009’s Popular Songs, providing embellishments that enhance rather than detract from the band’s fundamentally wistful, melodically rich aesthetic. Yet McEntire’s hand is a light one, more content to sharpen the edges of the band’s core sound than to hack away at anything wholesale. Take album lead-off “Ohm,” for example, a song so stereotypically Yo La Tengo—distortion pedals, buzz-saw, squealing guitars, fuzzy empty space and oddball percussion, Kaplan sounding almost preternaturally calm amidst the chaos, etc.—that it’s almost too easy to appreciate what the band is doing here, to wave it off as a band reveling in what makes them comfortable. What it actually is, of course, is a group making one of the best songs of their careers, nearly thirty years into said career, out of the same building blocks they’ve always done, drawing that chugging rhythm out almost hypnotically, propelling a pristine pop melody through a cyclone of wonderfully grimy noise, a groove with its feet firmly planted in Velvets-esque noise and sunwashed ‘60s pop. “Ohm” is the same old Yo La Tengo that has gotten the band and its fans this far, but tighter, settled, (and I’d never thought this was possible), more unerringly confident.
Fade is not an exciting record on its face, but finds itself in the emotional peaks that surface hazily here and there, through colorful production and exquisite songwriting: in the gradual uplifting and bubbly guitar tones of “Well You Better;” the sleepy romance of Hubley’s “Cornelia and Jane” washing out into the drowsy drum-machine driftwood of “Two Trains;” the softly triumphant horn arrangements of “Before We Run;” the pleasant feeling engendered by a soft collection of tracks coalescing together flawlessly, cohesively, into one languid, dazzling whole. The thrill is in those parts coming together so effortlessly and fluidly, bits and pieces of a brilliant past resurfacing in a present and future increasingly detailed and unique in its own voice, where the songs get better and the messages clearer the more time you spend with it. Kind of like a marriage, actually. Or, you know, a crockpot.
Fade is the most direct, personal and cohesive album of Yo La Tengo's career to date. Recorded with John McEntire at Soma Studios in Chicago, it recalls the sonic innovation and lush cohesion of career high points like 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. The album is a tapestry of fine melody and elegant noise, rhythmic shadowplay and shy-eyed orchestral beauty, songfulness and experimentation.