Yo La Tengo – I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

Yo La Tengo
I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

Whilst Yo La Tengo’s last two ‘official’ long-players – 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and 2003’s Summer Sun – pushed the band from relative obscurity into a comfortable convergence with greater commercial and critical recognition, the trio seemed to lose something in the process. By subtly streamlining the group’s sound into more straightforward and sensitive songwriting shapes, the robust diversity of YLT’s gargantuan back catalogue seemed to have slipped down the priority list. This schism was shown in a cleaner light with last year’s generous and multicoloured retrospective, Prisoners of Love, which reminded us that Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew cannot simply define a collective essence through restrictive practices, even self-imposed ones. Any such boundaries have however been broken down into many delirious pieces with the release of YLT’s latest album, the boastfully – but appropriately – titled I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.

Taking its rabid eclecticism cue from 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One – YLT’s last truly great album – I Am Not Afraid… is what all double-albums should be about; brave experimentation, wild style swings, gold nuggets of pure melody, balmy interludes and eccentric curveballs. Almost everything that YLT can do – and largely do so well – is here, alongside a sizeable smattering of new tricks and treats.

Book-ended by two towering 10+ minute epics – “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” and “The Story of Yo La Tango” (sic) – I Am Not Afraid… is on to a winner from the start, especially for fans of YLT’s seminal guitar-strewn gems from 1993’s Painful and 1995’s Electr-O-Pura. The churning organ/drum/bass-fuelled dirty grooves of “False Alarm” and “Sudden Organ” are also back on the agenda too, with “The Room Got Heavy” and “I Should Have Known Better” imagining wet-dream collaborations between Can and The Velvet Underground. Elsewhere, the retro-garage rock of “Watch Out For Me Ronnie” kicks out an entertaining racket, with a ragged brass section to boot. About halfway through proceedings comes the eight or so glorious minutes of “Daphnia”, which extends upon the wordless magic of “Blue-Green Arrow” (from the rarities disc of Prisoners of Love), with elegiac piano, slide-guitar shimmers and fire-side-meets-dusty-vinyl atmospheric crackle.

Despite the splattering of sonic settings, more recent YLT-converts should continue to feel catered for, especially with the sublime slow-mo balladry of the Hubley-sung “I Feel Like Going Home” and the McNew-led loveliness of “Black Flowers”, which could both be earmarked for a future Prisoners of Love – Part II compilation. Moreover, for those preferring YLT in unpretentious pop mode, there’s the Bacharach-indebted piano-driven prettiness of “The Weakest Part” and the harmony-drenched “Beanbag Chair” to sing in the shower.

Amidst all the must-keep material there are a couple of misfires, like the disco-funk of “Mr. Tough” and the soul-pop of “Sometimes I Don’t I Get You”, which somewhat grate with their ill-fitting falsettos, à la Lambchop’s overrated Nixon. But then of course, even the best-loved double-albums have their momentary lapses in reason; lest we forget “Piggies” (and many others!) from The Beatles’ White Album, “Hare Krsna” on Hüsker Dü’s Zen Arcade and the dubious “Little Boys” of Devendra Banhart’s Cripple Crow.

Although I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass isn’t quite the best set of songs in Yo La Tengo’s embarrassingly rich canon, it’s definitely one of the finest albums of 2006. Its many pleasures provide a vibrant detonation of imagination and insouciant charm; belying all the tedious clichés of being a rock band with over two decades on the clock.