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Review: Yo La Tengo, ‘Fade’

Yo La Tengo / Photo by Carlie Armstrong
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: January 15, 2013
Label: Matador

When Yo La Tengo release their next album three years or so from now, no reviewer will think to mention Sonic Youth. Despite a shared fascination with how noise and melody can coincide and glance off one another, the similarities that the East Coast’s two preeminent indie-rock bands shared were never really musical. They were, essentially, legal: At the core of each was a longstanding married couple. And that’s no longer so. SY’s Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon announced their separation in 2011 after a 27-year-marriage; YLT’s Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley are still on course to celebrate their silver wedding anniversary in 2013.

But the contrast between each couple’s self-conscious representation of life-partnership still brings Yo La Tengo’s latest, Fade, into focus. As so many weepy, first-person online eulogies have attested, “Thurston and Kim” functioned as an inspirational public entity for younger worrywarts, flesh-and-skronk evidence that artsy cool and long-term monogamy could coexist. So secure seemed Moore and Gordon that their lyrics needn’t indulge in any but the most oblique references to their life together, nor curtail any expression of wide-ranging desire. Married life was just single life with a sexual exclusivity clause added. Theoretically.

But “Ira and Georgia” barely exist outside their marriage. Their papery voices consistently renegotiate the inscrutable terms of their partnership, tacking addenda onto an ever-convoluting instruction manual for younger, hipper listeners on the knotty issue of prolonged intimacy. Their lyrics are less planned kitchen-table summits on major relationship issues than whispers of those intimate 3 a.m. doubts that drive one spouse to wake another, no less private because we’re meant to overhear. It’s a cocoon so all-encompassing that even bassist James McNew, when he steps up to the mic for his allotted one-song-per-album, seems to sing from within.

Kaplan and Hubley flaunt a vulnerable need for each other in a way that Moore and Gordon implied was unnecessary in a happy couple. Yo La Tengo lyrics have always skeptically eyed that unappealing portion of existence that is not Yo La Tengo, and from the very first line — “Sometimes the bad guys come out on top / Sometimes the good guys lose” — Fade deposits us into a particularly peril-fraught world. The real world, you might say, and Hubley’s downright cryptic “Cornelia and Jane” suggests that it can’t be kept at bay, that “Outside your window, neighbors peer in at you.”

And always with those niggling doubts. Among Kaplan’s favored lyrical ploys is to intimate fears in a more serious tone than they turn out to deserve. On “Is That Enough?” he floats a series of concerns, tentatively answers “Oh” and “Well” to the song’s titular question, ultimately decides “No,” then coyly adds, “If it’s unclear the way I feel for you.” When he later sings, “Oh baby, make up your mind before it’s too late,” more than three decades of shared life could be on the line — or the Thai place he wants to call for takeout might close for the night before Hubley decides what to order.

Yo La Tengo’s music mirrors these moods, but John McEntire’s production choices create an eerie aural equivalent to Fade‘s thematic concerns. Rhythm guitar and drums are foregrounded crisply, suggesting a stolid certainty, but distorted feedback swells and murky organ churns beneath and beyond, creating a disturbing kind of inverted shoegaze sound. (And not to belabor the parallels, but it’s hard to hear these guys collaborate with a Chicago indie-avant counterpart and not think of Sonic Youth integrating Jim O’Rourke as a member in the past decade — that’s some real Lincoln-had-a-secretary-named-Kennedy shit right there.)

Two extended drones, with unison Hubley-Kaplan vocals, bookend Fade. The distant rumble of tablas that opens “Ohm” is pinned down by maracas, a forthright backbeat, and a hypnotically static guitar chop — it’s like vintage Cornershop drained of its cosmopolitan insouciance. “Nothing ever stays the same / Nothing’s explained,” they sing with a disturbingly jaunty sense of acceptance. And though they seem to celebrate “resisting the flow,” a closer listen reveals that they’ve pledged to “Lose no more time / No time” resisting.

The finale, “Before We Run,” begins quietly, with Kaplan’s guitar elliptically commenting on an intricate Hubley drum pattern; gradually, interlacing strings and horns muscle in on the couple’s private conversation, making it all the more resonant when the two sing, “Take me where it’s only us.” Together, the two tracks translate the Yo La Tengo worldview into music more fully than ever before: Life, they suggest, is a state of enduring repetition and variation with a chosen mate. It’s a vision of intimacy as both hard-won and mundane; yet translated into music, it’s as much a fantasy as “Thurston and Kim” promising an eternal microtonal din of chic autonomy. It can feel both more possible, and yet further out of reach.