My Old, Familiar Friend
Brendan Benson was doing just fine by himself before Jack White came along, thank you. The Michigan-based musician cut three delicious slabs of power-pop lunch meat before joining The Raconteurs. That supergroup’s success has led to a wider audience, a bigger label and a better producer (Gil Norton of Pixies fame) for this trip across the ’70s AM-radio dial. Such is the retro ambience that you get the sense the title refers to no flesh-and-blood buddy, but some battered guitar or Fleetwood Mac LP.
Bleacher-stomping glam, la-la-la sing-alongs, string-drenched soul, California balladry and heartland disco are all masterfully carved from the kind of organic sound that can only come from a guy with a fetish for vintage gear. Benson applies organs and ooohs like wood panelling to the sides of cars. It’s pure warm, fuzzy nostalgia, but we challenge 2009 to produce a catchier rock song than ‘A Whole Lot Better’ or ‘Poised And Ready’ or ‘Don’t Want To Talk’ or… man – with talent like this, how come The Raconteurs weren’t amazing?
Yo La Tengo
As suggested by the sly all-purpose title of their latest studio disc, the members of Yo La Tengo believe in the loosest possible definition of pop music: in their 25 years together these hardy Hobokenites have tried their collective hand at any number of styles – punk rock, free jazz, acoustic folk, synth-pop – with results far more consistent than you’d expect, given their resolutely laid-back approach. If any sort of music can be popular, the band’s line of thinking goes, then every kind of music should be popular.
Popular Songs mostly finds guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley and bassist James McNew in the mood for the kind of homespun indie pop they’re probably best known for. That doesn’t mean they don’t tweak the formula with the occasional nod to their other influences: in ‘Avalon Or Someone Very Similar’ Hubley and Kaplan harmonize sweetly over jangly Byrds guitars; ‘If It’s True’ has a bouncy Motown bassline; ‘Periodically Double Or Triple’ is white-person funk at its least ominous.
The band stretches out during the album’s final three tracks, chewing over a single fuzz-psych riff in closer ‘And The Glitter Is Gone’ for nearly 16 minutes. It’s easy to admire the enthusiasm these veterans still bring to their music, but the jammy stuff is much less appealing than the more tightly composed cuts earlier on. Popular Noodling: doesn’t have quite the same ring, does it?