"I don't think any of us are particularly dying to evoke the month in which we wrote the songs," says Ira Kaplan, singer and guitarist for veteran New Jersey trio Yo La Tengo. "I think if you sound completely up to date, you risk being frozen in that date."
Speaking by phone from his home in Hoboken, Kaplan is mulling the concept of originality, something he recently told The New York Times he "doesn't put a gigantic premium on." A slight exaggeration, he admits, but Kaplan sticks to the sentiment behind it.
"I don't think there's any approach, including ours, that's all good or all bad," Kaplan explains. "Originality has a reputation for being all good, [but] I don't think it's any exception: There is a downside to originality, too. And there are more interesting and creative ways to be original than some of the things that get labeled that way."
For 25 years, Yo La Tengo has taken a contrarian approach to originality. Unafraid to evoke other artists, genres and time periods, the trio has dabbled in folk, pop, doo-wop, classic rock and the avant-garde. Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew have crafted a wide-ranging sound that—almost paradoxically—would sound less distinctive if it weren't so open to the influence of others.
Popular Songs, the band's latest and 12th since 1986, brandishes that originality-via-influence approach. Opening with the string-section samples of "Here to Fall," the band moves from ethereal slowcore and Motown call-and-response to bouncy folk-pop and chugging indie rock. Varied lyrical themes mirror the music's twists and turns.
On "I'm on My Way," Kaplan sings "Never knew what a difference/ difference could make." And as if to prove his point, after nine tight tunes, Popular Songs shifts gears dramatically, ending with three epic tracks that combine for nearly half of the album's 80 minutes.
Earlier this decade, Yo La Tengo seemed to lose track of its own ability to hop styles so expertly. Both 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and 2003's Summer Sun clung to a narrower range and felt strangely subdued. But 2006's I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass re-established the roller coaster ride that Popular Songs continues.
None of that was planned. "We always go song by song, and then when we're done, we trust and hope there's a record in there somewhere," Kaplan insists. "I don't think we ever take our eyes far enough away to see a direction."
And so the listener, like the band itself, is met with a stream of surprises. On Popular Songs, there's the bluesy, organ-driven "Periodically Double or Triple" and McNew's stair-climbing bass line on "If It's True," which feels as if nabbed from The Four Tops' "I Can't Help Myself." After more than two decades in Yo La Tengo, Kaplan and wife Hubley also trade vocals for the first time on the song.
"Initially I was singing that song by myself, but we thought that idea of having Georgia and I trade lines would be interesting," says Kaplan. "We were aware of it as something that we hadn't done before, and that was certainly part of its appeal. So we're not completely oblivious to that kind of stuff, but it's not where we start at all."
That principle holds for the triptych that closes Popular Songs. "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" drifts into 10 minutes of spacey sound, with guitars shimmering around Kaplan and Hubley's meditative hums; "The Fireside" is a sparse 12 minutes centered on acoustic strums; "And the Glitter is Gone" showcases Kaplan's noisy guitar explorations for almost 16 minues, akin to I Am Not Afraid of You...'s 11-minute opener "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind." Such long, exploratory songs have become a staple of the Yo La Tengo repertoire. Most of their albums contain at least one track that approaches or exceeds 10 minutes.
"Quite a few of our songs start as longer jams," Kaplan says. "Sometimes the aspect of not wanting to end becomes for us as much as what the song's about as anything else. Sticking them all at the end this time —or, I'm sorry, placing them all lovingly at the end—is something we've never done before. This time it just seemed to work nicely as an almost-coda, a kind of second act."
If Popular Songs sounds like a brother to I Am Not Afraid of You..., it's harder to hear the connection to the record Yo La Tengo made between the two, under the charming name Condo Fucks. Released earlier this year, Fuckbook (a play on Fakebook, an early YLT album of covers) was recorded in a single session. Fast and dirty, it brings to mind current lo-fi revivalists like Times New Viking and Eat Skull. Still, with soft ballads, swinging rockers and "ba-ba-ba" vocals buried under the grimy fuzz, it's unmistakably Yo La Tengo.
"When it was recorded, we were about to do the Adventureland soundtrack, and James wanted to do some recording rehearsal, since he does all the recording when we're doing soundtracks," explains Kaplan. "So he suggested recording a couple of practices, and we came up with the joke of the album title. At that point, we knew we would put it out somehow."
Soundtrack work has become like a part-time job for the group. They've contributed to six movies in the past decade, from the wandering buddy pic Old Joy to the sexually explicit Shortbus. As opposed to the freewheeling, exploratory way the band approaches its albums, Kaplan says, "We go into every soundtrack with a concept because the director has told us some idea of what they want. The cues have real starting points and end points, and sometimes they have mood shifts within them. We're often writing to the second, and we tend to work on the soundtracks faster than we do other things, which I think influences working on our own stuff, trying to remind ourselves that we don't have to look at everything from every possible angle. We can just sort of go with the first idea, and trust that it came out for a reason."
Perhaps that same immediacy fueled the Condo Fucks record. "People have suggested a kind of 'getting something out of the system' aspect to Fuckbook, which we all I think reject," he says. "But whether it had an influence [on Popular Songs], for sure it would have to." One tangible effect comes from Fuckbook being recorded in the band's practice room, which led to the band's decision to also craft Popular Songs there.
Once that choice was made, Yo La Tengo enlisted producer Roger Moutenot, who traveled from Nashville to wedge his equipment into the group's small space in Hoboken. They had worked together many times before, granting the session a level of comfort that actually irked Kaplan.
"There's certainly a part of me that distrusts the fact that it's comfortable, a concern that it might be too easy," he admits. "But if we changed things around more, I would expect the results would have more to do with what came before. We might grasp for things that would make us feel comfortable because other things are not. By keeping the circumstances about the way we work consistent, it helps make the results sound different."
Yo La Tengo plays Carolina Theatre in Durham Friday, Sept. 18, at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20-$23. Endless Boogie opens.