A band that’s completely void of pretense and absolutely teeming with adventure and abandon is a rare and cherished commodity. And when this band releases an album every few years, we take notice. Yo La Tengo is held so dear by so many for a reason. What other band can delineate the subtle, understated yet magnificently impacting moments in life, whether it be a quiet, shared moment of connection with someone special or a fit of unbridled passion longing for expression?
There comes a point when the ideals of youth and the harsh realities of existence collide. Sacrifices are made, crossroads are met and time stops its uphill climb and sort of evens out. At this junction, we may not be what we had hoped to become, but we have become something else worthy of exploration. Yo La Tengo resides in this struggle. Simply put, the band has scored the soundtrack to growing up and growing old.
If 2003’s Summer Sun was the mellowing of age, then its follow-up, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, is the Corvette purchase. Opener “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” shreds any notion that Yo La Tengo forgot how to bring the racket and acts as a worthy sequel to the band’s last feedback freak-out anthem, “Cherry Chapstick” off 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out.
For most of this record, the band is intent on trying on an assortment of hats, both new and old. James McNew and Ira Kaplan experiment with the falsetto on “Mr. Tough” and “Sometimes I Don’t Get You.” The former is poppy, horn/piano-driven number with Kaplan and McNew harmonizing falsettos about standing up to a bully on the dance floor; the latter is a breezy contemplation on the complicated and confusing effect of relationship. “Beanbag Chair” may be the album’s most blatant attempt at a pop song, made memorable with a cooing background vocal on the chorus and a meandering fuzzed-out bass line. If we can come to expect an absolute Yo La Tengo sound, it would certainly be “I Feel Like Going Home,” a languid, pensive mood piece built around piano, string and feedback. But the gem of the album has to be “The Race is on Again,” a wonderfully textured track that features an irresistible dual lead vocal by Kaplan and Georgia Hubley (the two are married), with Kaplan singing a step behind on the verse and hitting the harmony on the chorus.
How does I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass rank in the Yo La Tengo’s extensive canon (the band formed more than twenty years ago in Hoboken, New Jersey)? It undoubtedly falls behind the big three — Painful (1993), I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One (1997), And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. But how many career-defining albums can one band have? I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is the statement of a band insistent on showing the world it is not quite through being relevant. Yo La Tengo is aging gracefully and I, for one, am eager to see what tricks the trio has up its sleeve.