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Nineties Indie-Rock Lives On: New Albums by Yo La Tengo, Superchunk, Guided By Voices

As scads of young bands gravitate towards golden-age sounds, veteran heroes are still making excellent, urgent music

Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Ira Kaplan of Yo La Tengo

Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices, Mac McCaughan of Superchunk and Georgia Hubley of Yo La Tengo

Matt Cowan/Getty Images, Hutton Supancic/Getty Images, Anthony Pidgeon/Getty Images, Valerio Berdini/REX Shutterstock

During the last few years, we’ve been deluged with great new guitar bands, many showing an obsessive love for indie rock’s early-Nineties golden age – whether it’s Parquet Courts taking vintage Pavement in directions that never really even occurred to Pavement; Lvl Up mashing up Built to Spill and Neutral Milk Hotel; or Jay Som, Mitski, Soccer Mommy, Snail Mail, Lucy Dacus and more proving that Liz Phair’s Exile in Guyville is still a guiding light for brilliant young women creating brave new sonic and emotional spaces.

Sometimes the erudition of these bands can be uncanny – sort of like the Spinanes’ Manos with accents of Slint and just the faintest hints of an Archers of Loaf aftertaste. Amid all this respectful micro-revisionism, many of the bands that originally built that Clinton-era Eden are still making fantastic music, in some cases sounding more relevant and urgent than they did the first time around.

Back in the day, Guided by Voices’ Robert Pollard struck a bizarre, wonderful image: a grade-school teacher from Ohio in his mid-thirties hoisting a big red beer cooler aloft as he bounded out to enact his basement fantasies of combining Roger Daltrey’s stage moves with Keith Moon’s intake. Pollard had been home recording music for almost a decade when GBV broke out with 1994’s “lo-fi masterpiece” Bee Thousand and a subsequent string of excellent albums. At this point, it’s possible even he isn’t sure how many records he’s released, between GBV albums, solo stuff and whatever else (the press materials for 2018’s Space Gun put the unofficial count at “100+”). 

I’ve always been impressed that I can go an embarrassingly long time not really checking in with him, then randomly play some record from six years ago and feel guilty, because it’s five times better than I’d expect – even if it clearly had no logical reason to exist. With that in mind, I feel a little unsure of myself calling Space Gun his best LP in ages, but it’s pretty great – it’d totally make sense coming out after 1996’s Under the Bushes Under the Stars, the last record the band made with its “classic” mid-Nineties lineup until 2012. That lineup is here, and it clearly spurs Pollard to put the right amount of elbow grease into his songwriting. At 60 years old, the guy seems to have hundreds of tunes to burn.

Pollard is still remaking his rock heroes in his own image – from jacked-up Who love in the title track and “King Flute,” to the condensed early-R.E.M. of “Ark Technician” and “I Love Kangaroos” to “Blink Blank,” which sort of suggests Joy Division as Midwestern droogies raised on Seventies AOR. These 15 songs blur by – offhand hooks, candied, corroded guitar streaks and stupid titles piling up at a ludicrous rate – always feeling first-thought inspired but never merely tossed off. Even the slow ones don’t detract from the fun; the string-bathed Flaming Lips-size ballad “That’s Good” is actually quite grand.

Guided by Voices have thrived on their own terms because they’ve largely sidestepped the boom-and-bust bad breaks of rock capitalism, churning out whatever the hell Pollard felt like as often as he wanted. That kind of idyllic distance from the worst aspects of American life has been part of indie rock’s charm, and its survival. But life does factor in. And Superchunk’s remarkably banging new album, What a Time to Be Alive, dives into our latest national apocalypse, not with glum sanctimony but hard-hitting passion.

Superchunk started showing political nuance on their classic 1992 single “Slack Motherfucker” – not some “Take This Job and Shove It” fantasy, but a way of making peace with your nine-to-five grind because quitting wasn’t a real choice. A similar negotiation happens on ragingly frustrated songs like “Lost My Brain” and “Break the Glass”: How do you wake up every morning and face Trump’s “bloody nightmare” without switching from coffee to Liquid-Plumr?

For this band, it means connecting with the Eighties thrash that originally offered an escape out of the gilded Eighties in the first place. After that, it means naming names (“All these old men/Won’t die too soon,” Mac McCaughan sings on “I Got Cut”) and rethinking assumptions. “Reagan Youth” takes its title from an old hardcore band and wonders why punks back then chose to sit out the era’s big battles – while actual Reagan Youths Neil Gorsuch and Paul Ryan schemed to stick the Gipper’s smirking visage on Mount Rushmore. It’s a record that implies it’s never too late to jump into that fight.

Yo La Tengo acknowledge the same bloody nightmare McCaughan is singing about by titling their latest album after Sly and the Family Stone’s personal-apocalypse landmark, There’s a Riot Goin’ On. Yet while the depressive Sixties flower-pop gorgeousness of “Shades of Blue” certainly captures our heartsick mood these days, this introspectively lovely LP only seems political in the sense that its comforting place-apart prettiness reminds us that it’s always a good idea to take a break from the ruined world, get off Twitter and carve out some safe sanity – that a little restorative escape can be a kind of resistance too.

In that sense, Riot is like a plush panic
room. It’s one of their subtler albums, built from sounds and ideas they’ve
been playing with for decades. “Esportes Casual” recalls the Casio
bossa nova of their 1997 marital snapshot, “Center of Gravity”; the
out-jazz-tinged tumble of “Above the Sound” might remind some of
their cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War”; a version of amiable folk
eccentric Michael Hurley’s 1976 vacation yodel “Polynesia #1”
connects to Yo La’s 1990 covers LP, Fakebook, where they did a song by
Hurley’s pal Peter Stampfel. The album’s fragile center is occupied by the
ambient drift of “Dream Dream Away” and “Shortwave,” the
kind of thing to soundtrack a Sunday afternoon casually flipping through The
New York Times
– which you can be sure Yo La Tengo fans still read on
pieces of paper delivered directly to their doorsteps. As always, the
highlights are several choice examples of the kind of gracious, empathetic
guitar zone-outs they do better than anyone else on the planet. Nostalgia
cycles come and go. The children will wander. But some visions of beauty are
eternal.

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