Yo La Tengo has never gotten as much credit as they deserve. They loved the Velvet Underground before it was cool, when most of the current VU-aping acts were still in pull-ups. But more than that, they deserve more name-drops themselves. Jelone’s review of the Pains of Being Pure at Heart's album was spot on, saying the band “sounds like a tribute album to the Jesus and Mary Chain and the Ramones by Belle & Sebastian,” which was enough to send me running to the record store. But he could have cut down the word count: they sound like a Yo La Tengo rocker. On Popular Songs (this is not a greatest hits record, by the way), “Nothing to Hide” is a perfect example. It’s bare bones -- three Big Muff-ed chords, catchy organ, speeding rhythm section and frontman Ira Kaplan and drummer/wife Georgia Hubley singing so sweetly you can’t tell them apart. Perhaps they get shafted on their props because they excel at so many different angles, rather than a particular sound that can be easily categorized and referenced. These rockers only turn up once or twice an album after all.
Their experience with film scores (most recently in Adventureland, which I have yet to see) must have come into play in the production of the album, most prominently on “Here to Fall” with its sweeping strings and grand scope. Some hip filmmaker needs to get on this and use this song in a scene where the badass heroes of the flick walk into the joint, in slow-mo of course. “If It’s True” utilizes strings as well, but this time in a more `60s Motown context, so much so that Holland/Dozier/Holland could claim plagiarism of “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” in the intro. I’m not complaining because the song contains the catchiest vocals on the disc, with Ira and Georgia trading lines before joining for the chorus: "If it’s true / I don’t mind / There’s a million other things that keep me up at night / Maybe it’s not quite right / But we’ll find out / If it’s true." “Periodically Double or Triple” sees the band getting white-boy-funky along the lines of I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass favorite “Mr. Tough.” This one has more of that awesome crunchy organ, complete with crazy solo and elevator music interlude.
With the exception of these tracks, the album is a laid-back affair that is (comparatively) more consistent in its style than its predecessor, recalling 2000’s excellent-yet-chill And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. “All Your Secrets” is one of the best of this bunch, my favorite part being when Hubley provides some "doot doot"s and is echoed by a churchy organ. “Avalon or Someone Very Similar” showcases Hubley’s wispy tone with a rolling melody, and a fuzzed-out guitar in the background keeps things from getting too pretty. I would love to have more “Nothing to Hide”-style rockers here, but perhaps their release under the garage band alias Condo Fucks earlier this year flushed that out of their systems.
My biggest complaint with the album lies in sequencing. I’m all about the trio stretching out on lengthy tracks; it’s kinda their thing. However, here they squish all the album’s longest songs at the end, with the last three tracks clocking 9:39, 11:25 and 15:54. I Am Not Afraid was a beast as well, but the long tracks were spaced at the beginning, middle and end. I like the twinkle layered on top of fuzz in “More Stars Than There Are in Heaven,” while “The Fireside” and its fermata-laden acoustic riff and distant electric squalls can’t help but fade to background music. Closer “And the Glitter Is Gone” is a jam of epic proportions, but if you couldn't take “Pass the Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” off their last one, you won’t like this. I dig it when James McNew lays down a repetitive bass groove allowing Kaplan to let loose, though the song could have been trimmed considerably and retained its effect.
In 2006, I Am Not Afraid seized the throne as my new favorite Yo La Tengo album (somehow taking down I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One), so Popular Songs had a tough task of topping it. It doesn’t quite do it, but it shows that the veterans have still got that unquenchable desire to hit rock music from every angle, maintaining that recognizable yet indefinable Yo La Tengo sound.