The key to Yo La Tengo’s sound is in their noisy cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” off the trio’s eighth and latest album, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One. Like the Beach Boys, Yo La Tengo, who’ve been indie rockers since Pavement were pimply teens, work within the American pop tradition. But as the Boys did on their kaleidoscopic ’60s masterpiece, Pet Sounds, Yo La Tengo aren’t afraid to expand their sonic horizons. On their last LP, 1995’s Electr-o-Pura, guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew did just that, artfully exploring the schism between minimalist pop and ambient maximalism.
Heart continues Electr-o-Pura’s slow dive into abstraction, incorporating electronic grooves into such songs as “Moby Octopad” and “Autumn Sweater.” But throughout, Yo La Tengo maintain a tension between aural deconstruction and sharp songwriting. The album has its share of perfect pop songs: “Sugarcube” is an ethereal, romantic gem, while “Shadows,” an austere, velveteen ballad driven by Hubley’s alluring whisper, could have been a standard in another era.
If anything, Heart proves that Yo La Tengo can master nearly any pop style, from the bossa-nova swoon of “Center of Gravity” to the pedal steel guitar twang of “One PM Again,” which evokes a scratchy country radio station heard on a late-night drive. The greatest stylistic pileup occurs on “Spec Bebop,” where a Kraftwerk synth drone does battle with insistent “Sister Ray” cacophony; the music’s ominousness is undercut by Yo La Tengo’s infectious joy at simply making noise. It’s just this joy that makes Yo La Tengo stand out amid their indie-rock peers: On Heart they may aspire to be the greatest indierock, noise-collage, electronica collective ever, but they’re also just being themselves.