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Fighting Words

 

Yo La Tengo: I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass

Matador, 2006

Rating: 4.3

 

Posted: September 8, 2006

By Laurence Station

One gets the feeling that if current media capacities allowed two hours’ worth of music, Yo La Tengo would use up the full 120 minutes. Yo La Tengo is a band so enamored with the exploration and reinvention of musical genres (especially pop and jazz) that the notion of cramming as many styles as possible onto a release is all but second nature at this juncture. For those kosher with the group’s scattershot approach, I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass will be a delight. Less enthusiastic listeners will be more inclined to deride the work as an unwieldy, unfocused mess. Regardless of where opinion falls on the matter, there’s no denying I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass (apparently a quote taken from basketball player Kurt Thomas’ words of warning to fellow NBA star Stephon Marbury) is the best-titled album of the year.

Clocking in at two-odd minutes shy of the eighty presently allowed, I Am Not Afraid of You is a dizzying combination of the familiar and the foreign in regards to the Hoboken trio’s exhaustively eclectic catalog. The big shock: No covers. (Fans needing a Yo La Tengo cover fix can snap up the recently released, wildly hit-or-miss Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics.) The par-for-the-course, extended Velvet Underground White Light/White Heat-period jams are present, with a pair bookending the album (“Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind” and “The Story of Yo La Tango,” respectively) and the scratchy, intriguingly minimalist instrumental “Daphnia” sandwiched in between. Expectedly, espoused couple Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley take turns on the vocal duties with bassist James McNew getting a few isolated moments to shine. What should be a tired formula by now is freshened by a few interesting wrinkles in form and execution.

While the appealing slice of pop miserablism “Beanbag Chair” (punctuated by snarky brass ) and the sleepily mid-tempo “The Race Is on Again” (which could pass for a companion piece to And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out’s “Madeline”) fall comfortably in line with the recognizable Yo La Tengo sound, there are notable twists. The graceful chamber pop of “Black Flowers,” steadily building to an understated but emotionally resonant climax, and “The Room Got Heavy,” with its chant-like vocals, neo-primitivist percussion and groovily retro accompaniment, find Yo La Tengo pushing its musical boundaries without sacrificing its core distinctiveness.

“Point and Shoot” cleverly plays off a jazzed-up variant on the Peter Gunn theme; the breathily up-tempo “Sometimes I Don't Get You” reinforces I Am Not Afraid of You’s predominate jazz-oriented slant; and the frenetic rocker “I Should Have Known Better” and X-ish cowpunk stomp “Watch Out for Me Ronnie” unapologetically keep things off-balance. They’re nicely countered by the sweetly insouciant and too-brief “The Weakest Part,” the lone track that exploits the vocal harmonies of Hubley and Kaplan.

I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass is a delirious jumble, the rare album that holds together because of the sheer audacity of its diversity, rather than being torn asunder by it. More importantly, Yo La Tengo isn’t standing still, and it’s that sense of initiative, thrown down like a gauntlet with the declamatory punch of the title, and the assertive sprawl of its content that validates the trio’s enduring appeal.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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