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Double Duty

Yo La Tengo's two-set show espouses the mysterious mystery of the unknown

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Needle to the record, now. Yo La Tengo's hallowed I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One evokes an almost timeless, nostalgic feeling — regardless of how well acquainted you are with the album. For nearly 30 years, the band's music has accomplished that sort of sensation: It's very "of its time" while maintaining a beautifully evergreen flair.

The music seems wise beyond its years. The music seems reflective, warm, angsty, kind.

Bassist James McNew eschews words like that. Partners-in-crime Ira Kaplan (guitar) and Georgia Hubley (drums) surely concur, much as they have throughout their storied musical careers. Even in 2013, they avoid the world of analytics and qualifiers. The magic lay in the music alone.

The band's latest offering, Fade, catches them on a quieter plane, but one still filled with the lush imagery of love and hope they've always espoused. And bearing the other landmark works in mind, the enchanting element of surprise! is evident throughout.

Fade is, in many ways, a tidy distillation of the anthemic albums that came before it.

Yo La Tengo kicked off their current tour last month in Carrboro, N.C., where they unveiled a new two-set strategy that they'll bring to Cleveland's Beachland Ballroom. With a quieter first set upended by a louder — and likely feedback-drenched — second set, the trio is hoping to broaden the scope of what a classic YLT show can be.

"It'll be double the setlist effort. It kind of allows us to stretch out a bit more," says McNew. Fade's ten fresh selections are sure to fit in sweetly, letting fans hear the new material in a live setting. But the band has decades of songwriting to draw on, culling the craft of yesteryear to the present.

"We have many of our older songs on pretty quick recall," McNew says (as millions of fans collectively smile). "We still prefer to keep it spontaneous." And the band's extemporaneous and energetic live shows are similar in at least a few ways to their approach to writing and recording.

They've really perfected a time-honored tradition of close-knit collaboration during the writing process. Spontaneity is the key at every point along the way, as McNew says. And they certainly don't go into a new album with any sort of pre-conceived notion of mood or message.

Up until the recording sessions, McNew explains that the early work put into Fade mirrored much of their approach in years past. But a curious departure from the norm appeared in the studio this time around. ...Let's rewind a bit.

McNew joined the band in 1992, filling in for a few quick stints on the road. During a five-week sojourn across Europe, he and his newfound bandmates Kaplan and Hubley (who had been working the YLT angle since 1984) crammed into a tiny metal van with the guys from Seam. A drummer named John McEntire was tucked somewhere in the depths of that van. They all became friends in those quarters, launching another as-yet-unwritten chapter in their collective histories.

"We got to know each other very well," he says with a laugh. "But we'd never worked together."

That all changed (OK: Back to the present, now) when Yo La and McEntire hashed out the novel idea of, yes, working together on this upcoming album. For years, the band had worked exclusively with Roger Moutenot; the new voice in the studio provided a rather enticing challenge, McNew says. McEntire — of Tortoise and The Sea And Cake renown — is a force behind the soundboard in his Chicago studio.

"We had a very natural connection. He was capturing our technique, rather than molding it any way," McNew says. And those chops are resonant throughout this latest batch of music.

"Ohm" opens the album with a ridiculously jaunty and very Yo La Tengo-y melody. Consider this: Cast against a homemade backdrop of, say, "Big Day Coming" from 20 years prior, a very telling evolution comes to light. And dig that tabla-style percussion throughout.

Digging deeper into this movie, though, the landscape emits a gentle warmth, a la 2003's Summer Sun, perhaps. Much of the album involves concise dips into thematic wonderlands — shorter, relatively, than many of the band's most iconic tunes. "Cornelia and Jane," crooned gently by Hubley with an elegantly subdued horn section in the background, is a mesmerizing gem on the back-end. As a precursor to "Two Trains," it works flawlessly.

"We definitely kinda cut it down on the sprawl a little bit. But it felt natural. It felt right," McNew says. "I think that appealed to us in kind of a perverse way."

Timeless... Nostalgia... Those words come to mind again. It's a sure bet that a big portion of Yo La Tengo's fanbase considers certain albums of theirs to be hallmarks in the most profound sense of the word.

"Music that meant a lot to me when I was young still means a tremendous amount to me now — probably even more," McNew says, sort of letting his voice trail into the canon of his personal record collection and referencing Black Flag in particular. "Life-changing stuff," he says.

But of his own material — of the grandeur he's helped assemble with Kaplan and Hubley — McNew is content to let it drift on its own merits. After all these years, the band members steer well clear of inserting their voices into critical analyses. For McNew and Co., their perceptions of the material have no place in the conversation.

"We've becoming really skilled at not answering questions and not defining things for people. And I'm really pleased with that," McNew says. "It allows people to fill in a blank if they want to."

And that's all part of the great hobby of knowing and loving a band. Yo La Tengo is one of those bands with enough history, enough chops, enough heart in their music that, with the right eyes, an actual universe blooms into view, with plenty to digest and talk about.

"In some ways, it's over," McNew says of the time spent massaging Fade in the studio. But time, you see, will go on to tell a different story. Look back at Yo La Tengo's massive catalog; every seed they've planted has wriggled into the magnitude of its own life. "The songs kind of start to grow with us. Lengths will change; arrangements will change. ...We're all about growth."

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