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Yo La Tengo, ‘Fade’ – Album Review

Yo La Tengo
Matador Records

There’s always been a mournful quality to Yo La Tengo’s music. For more than 25 years, the New Jersey trio – led by the husband-and-wife team of Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley – has found sadness in beauty, and vice versa. More so than the two bands that they’re frequently compared to – the Velvet Underground and Sonic Youth – Yo La Tengo strike a balance of dragged-out improvisation and focused pop splendor that borders on unapologetic grandeur.

On ‘Fade,’ their 13th album and first in four years, they get even more reflective about life, death and growing old. It probably has something to do with the members approaching 60. And possibly Kaplan’s 2011 health scare. Or maybe it just has to do with life itself. Either way, ‘Fade’ is one of Yo La Tengo’s prettiest and most controlled works, a 10-song rumination on the past, trust, fidelity, uncertainty and helplessness.

As always, Kaplan and Hubley share singing and songwriting duties. The opening ‘Ohm’ (at almost seven minutes, it’s ‘Fade’’s longest song) features the couple gliding over a droning instrumental buzz that eventually gives way to handclaps and fuzzy guitars. “Nothing ever stays the same,” they sing. “Nothing’s explained.” And that pretty much sums up the big question mark that hangs over the entire album.

But there’s also a sense of complacency with where life has taken them. ‘Is That Enough’ is a straightforward love song (complete with orchestral strings) that ranks among the most gorgeous cuts in the band’s long career. ‘Well You Better’ is an elder’s word of advice set to indie-rock’s version of soul music. And the acoustic ballad ‘I’ll Be Around’ offers a shoulder of support.

Still, ‘Fade’ is at its best when Yo La Tengo cast a little sorrow over the songs. Kaplan delivers a hushed requiem over stripped-down krautrock on ‘Stupid Things,’ a reflection of past regrets met with a new-morning shrug. And horns and strings punctuate one last look back on the closing ‘Before We Run.’ It’s a lovely, elegant moment, and a fitting ending to Yo La Tengo’s best work since their late-‘90s/early-‘00s masterpieces.

8 out of 10 rating

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