Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew sound like no other band. This is not because they're contrarians, but because they're artists. I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass has everything that ever made Yo La Tengo great, but elevated to new heights, from the remarkable orchestral chamber piece "Black Flowers" to the garage-punk rave-up "Watch Out For Me Ronnie." If there's one constant about Yo La Tengo, it's that this famously restless band continues to broaden its horizons.
I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass is an album that delights in being an album. This is no mere loud followed by soft merry-go-round, but a subtle parade. Bookended by very different but equally intense ten-minute-plus guitar epics, the set has dramatic arcs that don't all build in expected ways. After a dense thicket of forest they may find a clearing, stop for a picnic, but then fall asleep, dreaming away as day turns to night. A violin (played by David Mansfield, of Dylan's Rolling Thunder Revue) threads its way through the heartbreakingly fragile "I Feel Like Going Home," mirroring the longing in Georgia's vocal, after which "Mr. Tough" struts in on a funky piano riff, with Ira and James singing in falsetto about the transformative power of music.
As much as the full album experience is about the big picture, Yo La Tengo are aware of the small moments. In fact, it is the slivers that make the band so hard to describe: The ambient static in the haunting instrumental "Daphnia"; Georgia's dramatic reading of the vaguely "Autumn Sweater"-esque "The Room Got Heavy"; the way the drums, bass, and tambourine turn themselves inside-out in the intro of "Pass The Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind".
The band's quest for musical release is inextricably tied to a sense of community. It's suffused with the hope borne of realizing that if music can transcend the fractious or mundane realities of life, then we can and must rise above the troubles that divide us (see "Mr Tough"). They embody these ideas in dealings with fellow musicians, and have worked with an incredibly diverse range of artists, from Jad Fair to Ray Davies. Their week of Hanukkah shows at Maxwell's has become an annual Hoboken tradition and raised tens of thousands for local charities, as scores of guests take the stage, stepping into a community forged around the gentle yet sturdy triumvirate that is Yo La Tengo. Similarly, the band's Swing State Tour in fall 2004 encapsulated much of what the band is about, involving tons of friends, a wild array of songs, a radically-different three-hour set each night, and political motivation with little to no actual politics at the shows except by implication.
It's been said that while Yo La Tengo is not a jazz combo, they think like jazz musicians, and indeed their penchant for surprise stretches beyond their well-documented work with free-jazz ensembles Other Dimensions In Music and the Sun Ra Arkestra. Their annual covers-by-request WFMU fundraiser gets a huge audience and lots of laughs (and a CD compilation released earlier this year as Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics), but is also a shocking display of improvisational skill (and ridiculously encyclopedic knowledge of pop history). In July 2004, they performed at the Anthology Film Archives in NYC, improvising a soundtrack to a live light show by artists Joshua White and Gary Panter, which led to their using a Panter painting as the cover of I Am Not Afraid.
Fade is the most direct, personal and cohesive album of Yo La Tengo's career. Recorded with John McEntire at Soma Studios in Chicago, it recalls the sonic innovation and lush cohesion of career high points like 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and 2000's... And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. The album is a tapestry of fine melody and elegant noise, rhythmic shadowplay and shy- eyed orchestral beauty, songfulness and experimentation.
But Fade attains a lyrical universality and hard-won sense of grandeur that's rare even for this band. It weaves themes of aging, personal tragedy and emotional bonds into a fully-realized whole that recalls career-defining statements like Blood on the Tracks, I Want to See the Bright Lights Tonight, or Al Green's Call Me.
"Nothing ever stays the same / Nothing's explained," the band sing in unison on the reflective opening track "Ohm". "We try not to lose our hearts / Not to lose our minds." It's a straightforward sentiment for a band who prefer private intimation to forceful expression. It makes the song's resistance to resignation feel that much more earned.
This is the first time Yo La Tengo has collaborated with producer John McEntire, best known for his work in Tortoise as well as for recording such artists as Bright Eyes, Stereolab and Teenage Fanclub. He has helped the band hone a set of songs as multifaceted as they are seamless -- flowing from the low-key shimmy of "Well You Better" to the muted motorik kick of "Stupid Things" to the cozy distortion of "Paddle Forward," and right through to the cagey groove, horns and strings of the gorgeous album closer, "Before We Run," in which Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan sing "Take me to your distant lonely place / Take me out beyond mistrust."
Fade's emotional core sits at its very center with two songs, one sung by Kaplan and one by Hubley. The tender, raw, Kaplan-sung ballad "I'll Be Around" pivots around a circular guitar figure set against James McNew's pulsating bassline. The song's simplicity and starkness stand like a beacon against the emptiness. The following track, "Cornelia and Jane," features Hubley gently singing, "I hear them whispering, they analyze / But no one knows what's lost in your eyes / Sending the message that doesn't get to you / How can we care for you?" supported by whispering cushions of horns and delicate vocal harmonies. The effect is both heartbreaking and reassuring.