Remember learning about the three ages of a river in geography class? Well, the same theory can be applied to rock bands. At first they are young and untamed, rushing blindly on like lemmings with guitars. Then they settle and develop, benefitting from a little knowledge and nuance. And finally they turn bloated and sluggish, phoning in a few quickly forgotten records on the way to retirement, death, or obscurity. Some bands never make it out of the first stage. Others spend only a brief moment in that golden middle period, while a precious few manage to linger there for longer, carving out interesting careers spanning various releases. Like Yo La Tengo, for example.
But on the evidence of their most recent release, Popular Songs, these perennial indie darlings are in danger of slipping into meandering meaninglessness. It isn't so much a bad album as it is a disappointing one. It's the kind of record that has you reaching for their older releases to see if they are as good as you remembered (they are), or wondering if the band recently "did an REM" and signed some creativity-killing megadeal with a major (they haven't). You could almost be forgiven for thinking it was a collection of B-sides, if only Yo La Tengo hadn't already released at least two collections of far more interesting offcuts.
Too much of Popular Songs feels like underwhelming filler, such as the soporific "When It's Dark," the silly fluff of "Periodically Triple Or Double," the easy listening "I'm On My Way," or the one-dimensional "By Two's." And then there's "If It's True," a track that begins with a spot-on imitation of a classic Motown intro, but only suffers from the comparison from that point on. Granted, some tracks are better than others, but none are strong enough to save the album as a whole. Even album opener "Here to Fall," which is propelled by dramatic stabs of strings and a rolling, dirty beat, still comes off as too polished and self-aware for its own good. The whole things feels disappointingly lazy and just a little fake, like going to your favorite family-run restaurant and hearing the ping of a microwave just before your food appears.
Of course, there are some who believe Yo La Tengo have always been overrated, and their delicate/distorted back catalog may seem slight to some in places. But more often it surprises, finding passion in understatement, or calm amid a squall. Take a song like "Autumn Sweater," a piece of music so cosy it even features knitwear in the title. But it is also filled with sadness and regret, and captures something fundamental about the fleeting nature of time. This new album, in contrast, seems like all woollens and no scratch. The difference is subtle, but important.
Perhaps Yo La Tengo were never destined to be a great band, but for a long time they have been a really good one, and a truly entertaining live act too. Hopefully their shows in northern California this weekend will give a more optimistic indication of what lies around the next bend.
Popular Songs by Yo La Tengo is out now on Matador Records. They play the Rio Theatre in Santa Cruz on October 17, 2009 and the Treasure Island Music Festival on October 18. For information and tickets, go to Riotheatre.com and Treasureislandfestival.com.