For 25 years, Yo La Tengo have weathered the slings and arrows of indie fortune like pretty much nobody other than Sonic Youth. When the once technically inept Hoboken, N.J., rockers found themselves among the last formerly underground bands of their generation still standing at the turn of the millennium-- years after the grunge-rock gold rush-- they aged with amazing grace on 2000's cozy And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. When their next album, 2003's relatively sleepy Summer Sun, turned out to be a rare critical dud for the group (co-founded by former music critic Ira Kaplan), they turned around and released a sprawling, omnivorous monster, 2006's 75-minute I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass-- one of the best albums many critics presumably didn't make enough time to hear repeatedly in full. Now, once again, Yo La Tengo are in a weird spot. On Friday, I read an article by a likeable young woman who held them up as the quintessential example of a band that some sinister cabal of creepy music critics constantly hypes-- then acknowledged she can't help loving Yo La Tengo anyway. The same day, in response, another pro music critic tweeted that he finds the group "boring." Yo La Tengo don't have the new-car smell of your Vampire Weekends or Grizzly Bears, but they've built up too much institutional credibility for liking them to be an edgy or unpredictable stance; they're almost definitely never going to lose their devoted cult following, but their chances for Album of the Year-size acclaim have probably passed, and they're not the Flaming Lips. What's a band to do?
Popular Songs, like I Am Not Afraid of You... before it, synthesizes a range of influences-- psych, Motown, etc.-- into another set of worthwhile additions to the Yo La Tengo songbook. It's not going to grab a whole lot of attention, but if you listen to it with open ears, it's hard to imagine too many people not liking it. Before Friday's show at the Slowdown in Omaha, I had seen the band twice before, though I wouldn't really count either: The first was when they were playing their instrumental film soundtrack album in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, and the second was at the Pitchfork festival over the summer, except I had just gotten into town and spent way too much of the set talking to much-missed friends. D'oh. Friday also marked my first visit to the Slowdown, a venue co-founded a couple of years ago by Saddle Creek label dudes Jason Kulbel and Robb Nansel. What a place to see a show: Clear sightlines from anywhere, free coolers of water, and much more importantly, astonishingly great acoustics. When Yo La Tengo opened the show with 15 minutes of instrumental noise-skronk (Popular Songs closer "And the Glitter is Gone"), you could actually hear what was going on, not just that it was loud. When they broke things up in the middle of the set by bringing drummer Georgia Hubley to the front of the stage for a few acoustic songs, you could hear every nuance in their urgent whispers. ...At other shows, how much are my ears usually missing? With a setlist that demanded audience attention from the opening feedback, Yo La Tengo put on a captivating set, whether inspiring a little crowd shimmying with the boogie-ing "Periodically Triple or Double", playing old favorites like "Autumn Sweater" and "Sugarcube", or blasting off into noisy epics like "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" (the source of this post's title quote). I was pretty tired at points, having slept too little the previous night, and I wasn't really feeling the Moby Grape cover (apparently Yo La Tengo are covering a song by someone from every city they play, and I guess the Grape had Omaha connects), but I was definitely never bored. I guess that makes me another creepy music critic.
And then, to top it all off, it snowed. Thanks, Nebraska!