The critics always get it wrong, don’t they? Just as mainstream publications heap praise on the no-longer-secret Yo La Tengo, they start to sound boring. 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out is sweetly melancholic, yes, but a snoozer compared to the three great albums that preceded it. And this year’s Summer Sun was worse — touted as the ultimate summer album, its breeziness is its tediousness. In the wake of this comes Today is the Day, a six-song EP marked by a welcome, if somewhat empty sounding, return to fuzzy power pop.
Today is the Day‘s first three songs are Summer Sun outtakes. “Today is the Day” is the album’s first single, and one of its only standout songs. The EP version is an amped-up, fuzzed-out alternate take that pales in comparison to the original, which emphasizes Georgia Hubley’s breathily seductive vocals and Ira Kaplan’s plaintive guitar riffs. “Styles of the Times” is vintage YLT from the great Electr-O-Pura era. A spiky two-note riff is coupled with the same beat they used for Electro-O-Pura‘s “False Alarm” (borrowed from a Feelies song, by the way).
So just as it seems Yo La had abandoned the messy power pop that made them one of the best underground bands of the ’90s, they return to the same old formula. And it’s good in the same sort of way, but also weirdly vacant. Haven’t they done this before, and why is it necessary to revisit a period that’s well behind them and that they’ve already perfected? Even a cameo from great jazz bassist William Parker does little to spice up “Outsmartener,” which recalls the overly poppy incarnation of Sonic Youth that reared an ugly head (and their worst albums) in the early ’90s.
“Needle of Death” is another of YLT’s celebrated covers, a quiet acoustic version of a Bert Jansch song from 1965. Very pretty, this, though not close to epic versions of songs by the Seeds, Richard and Linda Thompson, the Only Ones, Love, and so many others that set them far apart from other pop bands dopily cranking out Stooges songs. “Dr. Crash” revisits the twangy guitar sound so prevalent on Yo La’s New Wave Hot Dogs. “Cherry Chapstick” is a nice acoustic version of the excellent And Then Nothing song recorded for an Australian radio station in 1999.
Clearly, this is a mixed bag, although potentially suggestive that Yo La is ready to climb out of the listless slump that culminated this year in their worst album in years. I may be slightly harsh on Today is the Day: it’s a single, and B-sides are B-sides. But after a string of landmark albums in the ’90s that left them pegged as the guitar rock band graduating from the ho-hum indie school with by far the most potential, I think we all expected more than this.