It’s like Big Star never stopped making music. Sure, it is a far more current and contemporary imagining of the essential, under-appreciated rock heroes, but the spirit is there. After all, it was Yo La Tengo that cemented my love for Big Star with their cover of “Take Care” on 2003’s Summer Sun. (I had previously heard “Thirteen,” but their cover was that necessary second puzzle piece that propelled me into the world of Big Star.) After years of deeply loving that band, Alex Chilton died of a heart attack literally days before I would see him at SXSW. But this isn’t a Big Star review.
Yo La Tengo have produced a record as solid as almost anything they’ve produced in the past, and I am likely to listen to it more than almost any other record this year. How can a band be so good at making music for so long? The record kicks off with the epic, distorted fuzz of “Ohm,” emitting an eastern influence, but only if you can ignore the feel-good, late-night chant of a chorus. It’s a perfect example of all the disparate sounds Yo La Tengo has the ability to channel. As I listen again (for about the 20th time) while I type, all I can do is shake my head in joyful bewilderment as Yo La Tengo proves that you can write a 7 minute track that you’re actually disappointed to hear end.
The first half of the album is decidedly more driving and distorted than the latter half; each of the first four tracks could be called standouts. Strings and the distant whine of a guitar back Ira Kaplan’s Lou Reed-esque voice and the low, breathy vocals of Georgia Hubley on “Is That Enough.” The opening seconds of “Well You Better” fool the listener into expecting a quiet, ambient number before quick snares cut the mix and funky guitars are introduced. Quieter, mid-album tracks “Cornelia and Jane” and “Two Trains” rhyme in name and act as mirror twins, though Hubley heads up the former while Kaplan handles the latter. “Cornelia and Jane” defines itself by being the sparser, particularly at the end, when minimal guitar notes meander around Hubley’s gorgeous voice.
The album closes with “Before We Run,” which finds the band coming almost full circle, with a sprawling, fuzzy upbeat song. Hubley sings on the track that is decidedly more soaring and adventurous than the opener. As the end approaches, I’m left musing about the title. Though there is a fade out in the closing seconds, the album itself does anything but fade at the end. However, even at their most driving and raw, Yo La Tengo have always possessed the spiritual texture of a hazy, fading photograph or some foffy half-remembered recollection. For me, the memory of the first time I heard “Today is the Day” on a mix or the day that Alex Chilton died.