Yo La Tengo’s greatest album, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, is a scattered mélange of droning instrumentals, Sonic Youth-esque feedback freak-outs, gentle ballads, and a Beach Boys cover. Heart was followed by the gentler mood pieces And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out and the less successful Summer Sun. The former was made up largely of haunting ballads that coyly illustrated singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan and singer-drummer Georgia Hubley’s courtship while cutely dropping Simpsons and Whit Stillman references. Mature, clever, and fragile, it was a brave new direction for a band approaching its second decade of existence.
But Kaplan has been called the Jewish Jimi Hendrix, and coyness and sensitivity does not a “Machine Gun” make. Yo La Tengo’s newest record, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass opens with “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind”—an 11-minute two-chord pop song anchored by a tempest of Kaplan’s Stratocaster antics. It’s a terrific opener that exemplifies everything that’s great about Yo La Tengo: part “Sister Ray,” part “Sweet Caroline.” Even if they didn’t really go anywhere, it’s great to have them back.
Then again, I Am Not Afraid often feels like a retread of I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One with its chaotic genre-hopping—from bossa nova to shoegaze to Kinks-style garage romping to mournful ballad and back again. So while patient fans of the group and those afflicted with ADHD may very well love every second of the nearly 80-minute run time, others—such as yours truly—may balk at how I Am Not Afraid‘s largely emphasizes quirkiness over emotion. The Belle and Sebastian-aping “Mr. Tough” is particularly annoying, especially sequenced immediately after the stunning Hubley-manned tearjerker “I Feel Like Going Home.” The pointless instrumental “Daphnia” goes on for nearly 10 minutes, and even the album’s press kit admits that “The Room Got Heavy” rips off I Can Hear the Heart‘s “Autumn Sweater.”
But for a band as prolific and adventurous as Yo La Tengo, some strikeouts come with the territory. I Am Not Afraid of You still boasts more highs than lows: “Point And Shoot” ends with a startlingly cool deconstruction of Don Henley’s “Boys Of Summer,” and “The Race Is On Again” is an effortlessly beautiful jingle that advances my claim that Hubley is one of indie-rock’s most underrated vocalists. “The Weakest Part” is an AM radio-ready pop song demonstrating that Yo La Tengo could have opened for Bread or the Byrds as easily as “Pass The Hatchet” shows they could have played with Suicide or the Swans. I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass is a bloated, overreaching long-player in the tradition of bloated, overreaching long-players like Sign O’ The Times, Exile On Main Street, and London Calling. But it’s also business as usual for Yo La Tengo.