THERE is no doubt that the music industry is in a volatile state, and the apprehension this creates filters down to musicians in the conservative signing policy of the major labels and the difficulty that bands who choose the independent route have in making even a modest living from music.
Yo La Tengo: Fade
But take heart from the example of Yo La Tengo. The respected New Jersey indie rock trio, comprising husband and wife team Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley and their longtime bass player James McNew, have ploughed their own furrow for almost 30 years, playing to a loyal fanbase, steady though not spectacular in numbers. Alongside their more commercially successful peers in Sonic Youth, they are keeping the New York area avant-rock flame alight into their mid-fifties – and presumably beyond, since Kaplan has acknowledged their solid cult following virtually guarantees them an audience for whatever they choose to do next.
They also enjoy a stable partnership with Matador Records, who have been releasing their music for the past 20 years and, until now, the group have always worked with producer Roger Moutenot on their numerous psych-rock excursions. The Velvet Underground have always been a touchstone – the band even portrayed the Velvet Underground in the film I Shot Andy Warhol – but, in the past decade, they have made a conscious decision to hold back on the noise-rock odysseys and explore a milder palette, adding subtle horn and string arrangements. They have also proved themselves as the go-to guys for all your indie film soundtrack needs, providing music for Old Joy, Shortbus, Adventureland and Junebug.
Consequently, Yo La Tengo are in the enviable position – not unlike The Fall – of remaining their own men (and woman) while nudging their signature sound in different directions. Their gigs can involve anything from rudimentary choreography to interminable drone jams (I’m for the dancing every time).
On this latest outing, they have found a new producer playmate in their equally respected peer John McEntire, a member of post-rockers Tortoise, and The Sea & Cake, who has produced the likes of Teenage Fanclub, Bright Eyes and Stereolab. Still, Fade is no big break from their back catalogue, laying on the signature fuzz rock yet reining in the noise. It is, however, relatively pithy, considering that their previous album, the playfully titled Popular Songs, bowed out with three mega-tracks spooling out over nearly 40 minutes. In response, the band have now resolved to “to cut down on some of the sprawl”, so no track here is over seven minutes long and there are even a couple of songs under the three-minute mark, which is positively restrained for these guys.
As Kaplan sings on opening track Ohm, “nothing ever stays the same”. Having said that, there is a typical Yo La Tengo distorted guitar wigout brewing under its languorous poppy melody and rhythmic shuffle, gradually gaining prominence.
Is That Enough and Well You Better are more straightforward, gauche indie pop tunes with sweet string embellishment and naïve synth hook respectively, both very much in the vein of Scottish indie stalwarts such as BMX Bandits and Belle & Sebastian, while Paddle Forward picks up the pace a bit with a freewheeling momentum and burnished melody which harks back to the halcyon indie days of the mid-1980s.
Stupid Things ushers in a more sophisticated sound palette, with finger-picked guitar chiming over an insistent Krautrock beat and fuzzy bassline, and Kaplan sounding at his most blissed-out. I’ll Be Around also features ornate guitar playing (acoustic this time), breathy vocals and the understated drone of analogue keyboard, but the vibe is more pastoral.
Hubley takes lead vocals on Cornelia and Jane, another gentle overture with nothing to declare but its plangent guitar, soothing horns and her warm vocal tone, and again on Before We Run, which benefits from a fuller orchestral arrangement.
However, Two Trains might just be the point where this album nods off over its contented noodling, with Kaplan’s and Hubley’s lullaby vocals floating beatifically on top of a soft cushion of reverberating guitar. The comforting psych country ballad The Point Of It is refreshingly direct in comparison.
Yo La Tengo have already made their converts – which is not to say they won’t add modestly to their flock with this album – so I suppose there is no great need for any creative charm offensive. Personally, I could still wish for something a good deal more arresting and immersive from them. But for those in the right mellow, meditative frame of mind, Fade will make an ideal soundtrack to cosy up to through the winter months.