Album Review: Yo La Tengo’s “Fade”

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How does an indie-rock band stay together for 30 years? Success doesn't hurt. 

However, Yo La Tengo's brand of success is probably more critical than financial, which is probably the reason why they have maintained their long-standing membership in the elite Indie Club. 

The band's approach to music has never been easily pigeonholed. They may as readily perform a Todd Rundgren cover as venture into a 10-minute sonic squall of feedback.

At this point in their long career, it seems obvious that they are more dedicated to staying relevant artistically than cashing in on any formula. Having never "sold out"–the kiss of death for indie status–the band continues to maintain a dedicated and loyal fan base.

Having had the same lineup for two of those three decades, the trio has at its core the husband and wife team of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley with "newcomer" James McNew on bass (who joined in 1992). 

Much of the lyric content on their 13th release, Fade, deals with growing older and keeping things together through the passage of time.

Since most indie bands don't make past their 20s before imploding, adjectives like "mature" are seldom used to describe a band or a project.

This is the album that I was waiting for after 2009's fun but rather schizophrenic Popular Songs. Fade is more serious and more cohesive. Perhaps recruiting Tortoise's John McEntire as the producer contributed to the tighter, more focused sound.

Yo La Tengo Heads need not be alarmed by the absence of the band's 20-year collaborator, Roger Moutenet. The band still very much sounds like Yo La Tengo.

Fade will especially please fans of their 2003 release, Summer Sun. For that album, as with this one, the band discarded much of their raucous material in favor of a kinder, gentler Yo La Tengo. 

Strings and brass were incorporated into the band's sonic palette several releases back, but are utilized to greater effect on this new project.

The album opens with the longest track, the nearly seven-minute "Ohm." (which is short for a Yo La Tengo song.) It's one of the standout tracks and one that signals what's to come (be sure to check out the video of the band on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, performing the song with three drummers, including Fred Armisen of Portlandia and Saturday Night Live fame.)

The song, and the whole album for that matter, is rooted on pulse and drone. The simple, straight-ahead drumming and a single-chord strumming establish the music bed for the band to sing in unison:

Sometimes the bad guys come out on top

Sometimes the good guys lose

We try not to lose our hearts

Not to lose our minds

The feel and groove is reminiscent of The Beatles' "It's All Too Much." Even though the song dissolves into Kaplan's Nels Cline-esque feedback, it never ceases to be beautiful, trance-like and compelling. It never sprawls into an out-and-out noise-fest as in the past. The clamor seldom takes the foreground. 

Everything the band has done in its long career is present on Fade, but in a balanced and measured way. In fact, the entire production, the orchestration and the arrangements, as well as the fuzz, buzz, rattle and hum are all in service of 10 well-written and very attractive songs.