It's frustratingly confounding trying to figure out how Yo La Tengo have been written off by their detractors as "pretentious." Yo La Tengo know their history of obscure rock-and-pop like their multiplication tables, but never once have they used such a vast and powerful knowledge for evil, as in holding themselves above their peers, fans, friends, and other loved ones. In fact, quite the opposite, Yo La Tengo have always, and quite visibly, passed themselves off as a jovial bunch of music nerds, whether it be through hilariously self- deprecating music videos ("Tom Courtney," "Sugarcube") or an inviting and friendly stage presence, crafting music they love from every hodgepodge of sonic paraphernalia that lay in the recesses of their psyche.
I like to think that the goofy and longwinded title to the trio's umpteenth album is a confident taunt to their naysayers. Sure, hold it against Yo La Tengo for knowing their shit when it comes to music, but as you can see, all the complaints are loose, jealous talk and nothing more. If Yo La Tengo's bravery and stylistic hopscotch can't be appreciated in your oh-so-cynical world of musical snobbery, then I Am Not Afraid... will do little to change your Yo La worldview. But for those already plugged into this so-called "critic's pet," there's so much to love and celebrate here that it's without a doubt time to make a mantle for another classic in the band's never-ending catalog.
After the somber twofer of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and Summer Sun, Yo La Tengo have suddenly decided to frolic once again among their amplifier stacks. And not only that, the pop songs on I Am Not Afraid are their best in years, so full of glee, whimsy, and carefree spirit that only the most jaded will fail to register a smile. Kicking off with the ten-minute Lou Reed-meets-Jesus & Mary Chain-meets-Spacemen 3 rave-up "Pass The Hatchet...," the Hoboken threesome waste no time in throwing their vinyl collections to the wall and seeing what sticks. And while with most bands this is the worst kind of creative brainstorming cop-out, Ira, Georgia, and James have a certain gift, whether that be impeccable taste, impeccable talent, or both, that allows for a distinct identity within the greatest mixtape ever made.
Songs like "Beanbag Chair" have set an impossible-to-reach standard among kitsch-pop aficionados, and it's nothing compared to the garage-soul workout (complete with falsetto) of "Mr. Tough" or the pre-punk stomp of "Watch Out For Me Ronnie," two instances where the band delivers on their well-known affections for WFMU-approved pop obscurities. And as far as the more contemplative moments go, "I Feel Like Going Home" is one of the group's most gorgeous ballads in years, while "Daphnia" works as a polar opposite of the drone-funk of "Spec Bebop," this time trading in fuzzed-organ riffing for piano-vs.-violin ambient perfection.
If Yo La Tengo decided to pack it in, album closer "The Story Of Yo La Tengo" could wrap-up their career on an unfathomable peak. Honestly, I haven't heard a song this year that works the fierceness in the band's VU-snarl so perfectly, and in fact, no other song since possibly Godspeed's last record can compete in terms of sheer velocity and tension. It's 12 minutes of absolute rock 'n' roll perfection, encompassing every reason why I listen to this music in the first place; If only more bands were so unhindered about letting their amps ring out over the town. Yo La Tengo are beating the asses of bands half-their-age, and there's something incredibly comforting and life-affirming about a band letting their youthful exuberance live on full-force.
So sure, go ahead and use the whole "rock critic band" slam against Yo La Tengo, but honestly, good luck finding a better straight-up indie-pop/indie-rock record this year (save TV On The Radio) that's as uninhibited, unique, and flawlessly all-over-the-place as I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. Not only is it hands-down the band's best record since 1997's I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, but it proves letting your record collection guide your musical endeavors can be a fruitful and healthy venture, as long as you remember to actually enjoy it and let it all hang out. Yo La Tengo are probably better than your band, and they will beat your ass.
1. Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind
2. Beanbag Chair
3. I Feel Like Going Home
4. Mr Tough
5. Black Flowers
6. The Race Is On Again
7. The Room Got Heavy
8. Sometimes I Don't Get You
10. I Should Have Known Better
11. Watch out for Me Ronnie
12. The Weakest Part
13. Song for Mahila
14. Point and Shoot
15. The Story of Yo La Tengo