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Tuesday, Jan. 29, 2013

Yo La Tengo Will Not Be Around Forever

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Yo La Tengo have just returned from a tour of West Coast record stores, part of an aggressive first-week push behind their new album, Fade, and guitarist Ira Kaplan is adjusting to the full schedule. “I think in this modern record age, there’s more activity than ever focused on the initial week of an album’s release,” he explains during one of the many phone interviews he’s squeezing into the day before the band begins their full tour. “It’s another instance of the record industry becoming more like the film industry.” Though he’s careful not to complain about the workload—“Nobody’s making us do this,” he insists, “it’s not like we’ve got teams of managers pushing us around like we’re Stratego pieces or something”—he understands that the first-week model doesn’t exactly fit a group like Yo La Tengo, whose albums tend to reveal themselves at their own pace. A full-throttle first-week campaign might suit a younger, sexier band, but even during the ’90s when they embodied a certain strain of rock-critic cool, Yo La Tengo was never a young, sexy band.

“Our longevity can work against us,” Kaplan says of the challenges of being a veteran act promoting a new album. “People think they know everything about us already. The press tends to focus on whatever is new and supposedly different, so to say why our 13th record is worthy of coverage is a case that our label has to make.”

So why is Fade worthy of coverage? Well, it’s a good record, but that’s not exactly a shocker coming from a band that has released almost exclusively good records over the last couple of decades, as well as a few great ones. At just 45 minutes, Fade is also unusually short for a Yo La Tengo record and the first to fit on a single LP since the ’90s, but that’s hardly the kind of information marketing campaigns are built around. Of more interest to indie-rock fans, the album marks the band’s first time recording with producer John McEntire, of Tortoise and The Sea and Cake, a longtime peer whose record collection probably overlaps with Yo La Tengo’s considerably. It’s such an obvious collaboration that even Kaplan admits he’s surprised it hasn’t happened before.

McEntire’s fingerprints are all over the album, albeit in mostly subtle ways. Yo La Tengo had picked up some unconventional recording habits over the decades they spent working with producer Roger Moutenot, such as tracking without headphones or instrument isolation to challenge themselves, but McEntire pushed them to record more traditionally. Subsequently, Fade is one of Yo La Tengo’s cleanest, warmest records. It’s their softest album since 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, but it’s lighter and peppier than that frequently downbeat record, too busy reveling in life’s pleasures to dwell on their ephemerality.

It’s curious, then, that an album with such an optimistic lilt was christened with such a loaded title. At just four characters, Fade is the shortest Yo La Tengo album title ever, just a ninth the length of 2006’s I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, and that brevity underscores the band’s decision to prune some of the sprawl with this record. But the word “fade” is also heavy with connotations of aging and finality; it’d make a perfect title for a swan song. I ask Kaplan whether the band was trying to send a message about their future with the title. “I don’t think we’re drawn to obvious messages,” he says. “I think if the title had one single, obvious message, we wouldn’t have been drawn to it. It has multiple interpretations.”

Kaplan tends to be evasive when discussing the meaning of songs and titles. “I like things unexplained,” he says, “Explaining everything takes some, or all, of the mystery out of the process.” But I press him on the album title anyway, positing that for many listeners, Yo La Tengo is a band that’s always been around and, probably on some level, a band they assume will always be around. “Is that how you think of yourselves?” I ask.

“Well,” he says after a pause, “I can tell you that nothing’s permanent. So if you think we’re going to be around forever or, for that matter, if you think you’re going to be around forever, I’ve got sad news for you.”

Yo La Tengo plays the Turner Hall Ballroom on Saturday, Feb. 2. Doors open at 7 p.m.