You Can’t Judge an Album by It’s Cover
Easily one of the most important underground bands of our lifetime, Yo La Tengo, has a tendency to name their albums in the strangest possible way. Titles like And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out or New Wave Hot Dogs aren’t exactly the album titles that jump out and say “man, this must be awesome.” This can be especially said for Tengo’s latest opus strangely titled I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass. Stupid, stupid name. But album titles aside, Tengo does pretty much what it has always done—write really great songs, and on this outing, probably even more so than usual.
On Beat Your Ass (Which is how I’m going to refer to it) YLT decides to do something a little bit different than on other albums. They took all the different sounds and elements of music that they love (everything from 60s British invasion organ jams to fuzzed out noise core to minimalistic Enoesque piano ballads), shove them in a blender and hit puree. Many times a band will try to mix the sounds they have played with and it just doesn’t seem to work all that well. YLT is not one of those bands.
The songwriting of Ira Kaplan, James McNew and Georgia Kupley can be said to be the modern day predecessors of The Velvet Underground. Much like VU’s self-titled third album, Beat Your Ass has a lot of mellow times and beautifully written songs, but it is sandwiched with two fuzzed out guitar jams. The opening track sprawling close to 11 minutes “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” makes one believe they are in for a sonic atmospheric noise adventure. Not so.
Directly after in an abrupt ending as if someone pushed the button on an old car radio, the station changes and we get the song “Beenbag Chair.” Kaplan’s awkward vocals come in loud and clear over a charming little piano ditty accompanied by Georgia’s luscious harmonies and a horn section giving it a playful and silly vibe. The rest of the album will take these 180’s like cutting butter with a sword—smooth and easy, but almost unnecessary. “I Should Have Known Better” sounds like it should be used in an Austin Powers cut scene with its pulsating organ and super fast guitar riff. “Mr. Tough” has the same goofy vibe as “Beenbag Chair”, yet it’s just a tad bit more addictive. Try not listening to it nonstop for two weeks straight… not that I’ve done that. “Black Flowers” and “The Room Got Heavy” are the peak midpoint of the album where the most unique and different songs appear.
McNew takes vocals on “Black Flowers” for a ballad of sorts that has a strange horn section and arrangements even Sufjan Stevens would want behind his songs. “The Room Got Heavy” is Georgia’s standout performance. Donning her best Nico impression and overlapping it on some really funky organ tracks and an interesting rhythm section of congas and drums that swirl and twirl inside of your ears.
Some of the tunes do kind of drag on a little too long such as the mid-point “Daphnia.” The songs sounds straight off Eno’s Music for Films and just doesn’t seem to fit here—but is that the reason it stayed on the tracklisting? Probably so. Diversity is what makes Beat Your Ass a great album. The finale of “The Story of Yo La Tengo” is a tidal wave of shoe gazing distortion that also drags just a bit too long, but in the genre bender we have here, it’s only too perfect of a closer.
So what should you do before buying this album? Decide whether or not you even like Yo La Tengo. As far as albums go, this will be misunderstood by anyone who is just trying to learn the greatness that is Yo La Tengo. This is a true Tengo fan’s album. It has everything you could want from them (minus their amazing covers that they can churn out.) A springboard this is not. I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass may very well be one of the best albums of this year and without a doubt one of Tengo’s finest moments. So should you buy it? I say yes, but only if you either a) like Yo La Tengo or b) are really interested in hearing an album structured in a way you would never think it should be structured. Just like the title, the idea of it will make you think that it can’t be good. But like Yo La Tengo, it is pretty damn great.
Rating: 9 out of 10
Key Tracks: “Mr. Tough”, “Black Flowers”, “The Room Got Heavy”, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind"
Worth The Money: For Fans of Tengo and Adventuresome music listeners only!!!
Many thanks to Paul Tsikitas for his take on Yo La Tengo's most recent release, and for giving this site some new matirial in my wake of lazy. Tiskitas is a LaSalle alumni, and as such earned the right to use phrases such as "shoe gazing" with complete impunity. He also knows his way around a record shop, and you should trust his opinion as much as I do.
Thanksgiving! Woo! I promise that I will get another review up here before you settle at you table to gorge yourself on roasted meat, I promise!