Yo La Tengo have been plugging away at their quietly successful career since 1984. Consistently, the primary fanfare associated with the release of a new Yo La Tengo album is the scramble of pop-music critics to scoop each other on reviews that invariably conclude: "Gee, this sure sounds like a Yo La Tengo album." Now that its latest album, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, has been out for more than a month, that fanfare has died down a bit, leaving workaday fans of Hoboken, N.J.'s, most famous trio to luxuriate in fresh but familiar blankets of guitar noise and pop songcraft.
Indeed, I Am Not Afraid sounds like every Yo La Tengo album ever made, and then some. That's a lot of ground to cover, but the band strap on their cross-training sneakers and ravenously tackle the task, leaping from the atmospheric, lopsided lope of near-epic opener "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind" to the falsetto-voiced, funk-lite of "Mr. Tough" to the gritty organ riffage of rockers like "The Room Got Heavy" and "I Should Have Known Better." The album is a like a rubber band, stretching and contracting to accommodate the elasticity of the songs' moods.
This requires some flexibility on the listener's part as well, and by the time the album rolls into its 12th track, I Am Not Afraid begins to feel a bit like the last quarter of a distance race. On the album's closer, "The Story of Yo La Tengo," Georgia Hubley sings buried, fuzzed-out vocals, but the song, which contentedly crosses the 10-minute mark, is basically an instrumental drone-and-noodle fest that fades off into the sunset, a horizon where Yo La Tengo plays, unheard, into the new dawn. You may come out of the thing with sweat on your brow, but your efforts will not go unrewarded.
With their shared longevity, love of noise and wife-husband creative partnerships (Hubley is married to Ira Kaplan; James McNew completes the band), Yo La Tengo are sort of a low-maintenance Sonic Youth. But being a fan of Yo La Tengo is rewarding for nothing but musical reasons; your allegiance to them will deem you neither square nor hip, and it's quite frankly, a relief.
The perfect antidote to the breadth of Yo La Tengo came to me thanks to my husband, who answered a Craigslist posting for a drummer. The dude at the other end of the ad was a guy named Patrick Porter, who had moved from Colorado to Yonkers, N.Y., with his girlfriend. Yonkers was not suiting him. He and Mr. Bir Toujour met up for beers at a bar close to Union Square, and they talked about how much New York sucks, and Patrick Porter gave Mr. Bir Toujour some CDRs with his songs. They talked a bit about getting together to play music and promptly did nothing about it.
Meanwhile, Porter's songs cropped up on the iPod, and they grew on me. "What's this?" I'd ask when an unfamiliar song would pop up on shuffle, and invariably the answer was, "Oh, that Patrick Porter guy." Porter's music had a rich, comforting sparseness, somewhat like American Analog Set without the drones and vibes.
The songs on our iPod were from Lisha Kill, a quiet collection of brooding songs awash in tension from unpredictable swishes of guitar feedback. Die Wandaland, Porter's new album, just came out; recorded last year in Denver, it's more upbeat, the instrumentation fuller. Porter's simple, childlike lyrics ring with a whimsy that's gently mirrored in nimble but subtle programmed beats and catchy melodies--the stuff of candy-coated folk pop.
Die Wandaland is charming and meditative without falling prey to cutesiness or self-congratulatory navel-gazing--the perfect album to put on in the fall mornings when you drink your coffee and steel yourself for the slings and arrows of another day in the cruel world.
Yo La Tengo play a three-night gig at the Fillmore in San Francisco on Oct. 19-21.