Yo La Tengo’s new album has a four-letter title, “Fade,” and runs about 45 minutes. So what happened to the band known for dense, sprawling songs and long, wordy album titles?
“It felt right,” bassist James McNew says of the streamlined approach. “The notion that we would make a short record was really appealing.”
The enduring rock trio has three records that push 80 minutes and album titles that rival Fiona Apple’s — “I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One,” “And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out,” “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass.” The new album bucks the trend, but some things remain constant.
“I’m not sure that it felt much different than any other record,” McNew says. “Certainly the process of writing the songs was similar.”
The 45-minute length of “Fade” appealed to McNew, who remembers taping albums on cassettes when he was younger.
“It used to be very important to me [as a listener] that an album would fit on one side of a 90-minute cassette, because then I could have one album on one side of the cassette and one on the other side,” he says. “It definitely touched a nerve with me: Yes, [“Fade”] will fit on one side of a cassette — that’s great.”
Yo La Tengo has been around long enough to see the death of that medium, the rise and fall of the CD, the transition to digital files and the recent rebirth of vinyl. Guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, who are married, formed Yo La Tengo in 1984. McNew officially joined the band for 1992’s “May I Sing with Me” and has stuck around ever since, meaning Yo La Tengo’s core lineup has stayed firm for 20-plus years.
“We don’t think about it, maybe that’s the key,” McNew says when assessing the band’s longevity. “We never set a goal and never thought, ‘We want to be this popular by this time.’ ”
Over the years, the band’s popularity has waxed and waned, with the group remaining on the fringes — never quite fitting into one particular genre. Yo La Tengo songs can be lengthy, noise-driven jams, such as 2006’s 10-minute-long “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind,” or quiet meditations, such as “Fade” standouts “I’ll Be Around” and “Cornelia and Jane.”
“Sometimes you do feel kind of jealous and lonesome that you’re not dubstep, because everybody else is and it looks like they’re having a good time,” McNew says. “In the long run, it’s good because once what you do can be summarized as a movement or a type of music, then it’s instantly obsolete and it’s over.”
On many of “Fade’s” songs, it’s hard to tell who is singing what, exactly; sometimes all three Yo La Tengo members sing lead at the same time. “The sound of not knowing what’s going on is definitely one of our favorite sounds,” says bassist James McNew.
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