Yo La Tengo's 11th and latest full-length album is And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, a title as cryptic and elliptical as the songs contained within. This time out, indie rock's second most-famous married couple, guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley, with bassist/keyboardist James McNew, expand on the more experimental and ambient leanings of 1997's amazing I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, keeping the volume low but the intensity high. The lead single from their most recent album was the infectious "Sugarcube," three charged minutes of bubble gum as sweet as its name and the likes of which are nowhere to be found on this new album. Like fellow indie mainstays Superchunk (Mac MacCaughan is joining Hoboken's finest as a backup guitarist for the upcoming tour), Yo La Tengo have probably given up on the idea of mainstream appeal and instead have let their signature pop style evolve in more arcane, understated directions. And like Superchunk's recent Come Pick Me Up, And Then Nothing ... still sounds astonishingly fresh and vital.
The tone of the record is more subdued than past efforts, and might not make for ideal listening while operating heavy machinery. From the funereal opening track "Everyday" to the quietly epic 17-and-a-half-minute (!) closer, "Night Falls on Hoboken," the emphasis here lies squarely on slow, atmospheric instrumentation and hushed vocals rather than ear-grabbing hooks. And while not so instantly accessible as much of the band's recent output, the songs still manage to be catchy, if elusively so; this is an album that rewards repeated listening. Kaplan's "Our Way to Fall" (RealAudio excerpt) and Hubley's "Tears Are in Your Eyes" are beautiful, haunting ballads in the traditional Yo La Tengo style, reminiscent of older gems such as "The Hour Grows Late."
Though this album won't be making anyone sprint to the dance floor, Yo La Tengo evoke the spirit of disco in a few instances. "The Last Days of Disco" shuffles along to a subtle conga rhythm while a Casiotone bossanova beat backs up Hubley and Kaplan's interwoven vocals on a cover of George McRae's '70s dance hit, "You Can Have It All" (RealAudio excerpt), which provides the record's most endearing moment.
Though Kaplan and Hubley have long been adept at keeping the line between their professional marriage and personal one distinct, "The Crying of Lot G" seems as frank a testimonial about working through a relationship as any they have recorded. Over a lazy cocktail swing beat, Kaplan pleads his case in a hushed spoken voice: "I wonder why we have so much trouble cheering each other up sometimes when one or the other of us is down. Instead, it's like, if you're in a bad mood, I look at you and think, 'Maybe she knows something I don't know.' " It's just a song, but you almost feel dirty for listening in. The closest thing to an all-out chaotic rocker is "Cherry Chapstick" (RealAudio excerpt), a dead ringer for Experimental Jet Set ...era Sonic Youth. The drum machines and synths get a good workout on And Then Nothing ..., but no one will be confusing this with a techno album anytime soon. Sort of like R.E.M.'s Up, the sonic noodlings and experimentations with gadgetry sound inherently organic, opening up the interplay among the three musicians rather than overwhelming it
Despite the far-flung raves that seem to greet each of their releases, all you really need to know to understand why Yo La Tengo is a national treasure is that one new song is named "Let's Save Tony Orlando's House" (as in "The Simpsons' " "I'm Troy McClure, and you may remember me from such telethons as ..."). As downbeat as the music here may be at times, Yo La Tengo never lose their sense of humor, which helps make what could have been a bleak album into a serene, at times sublime, one.