A weak and tormented teacher is pushed to the limit by his obnoxious students.
Although he had been playing for years, it wasn't until the 1990s that R.L. Burnside's raw electrified Delta blues were heard by a wide audience. His new fans celebrated his wild, unbridled energy, so it made sense for him to team with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion, the warped indie rock band that's all about energy. However, the very purists who celebrate Burnside hate Spencer, believing that the latter mocks the blues. As the blistering Ass Pocket of Whiskey proves, Spencer may not treat the blues with reverence, but he and his band capture the wild essence of juke-joint blues. And that makes them the perfect match for Burnside, who knows his history but isn't burdened by it. Together, Burnside and the Blues Explosion make raw, scintillating, unvarnished blues that positively burns.
After the elegant, introspective romantic narratives of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and the beautifully crafted but restrained pop textures of Summer Sun, it was hard not to wonder if Yo La Tengo was ever going to turn up the amps and let Ira Kaplan go nuts on guitar again. For more than a few fans "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind," the opening cut from YLT's 2006 album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, will feel like the reassuring sound of a homecoming – ten minutes of noisy six-string freak-out, with James McNew's thick, malleable basslines and Georgia Hubley's simple but subtly funky drumming providing a rock-solid framework for Kaplan's enthusiastic fret abuse.
Whether or not Yo La Tengo are being tongue in cheek with the title of their 14th album, Popular Songs does find Hoboken's finest embracing pop song structures with a renewed degree of enthusiasm – this isn't quite the Yo La Tengo "loaded with hits" album, but for a band that's shown an increasing willingness to explore the outer limits of its music in the studio, Popular Songs features nine tunes you can hum along with and sometimes even dance to. Those who got high marks in math will notice that Popular Songs has 12 selections, and as befits a band that covered George McCrae's "You Can Have It All," on the second half of this set YLT take the opportunity to stretch out and invite the spirit for a while – the total time of the first nine tracks on Popular Songs is roughly the same as the last three, which should tell you something about the album's dual nature.
At album number 13, Yo La Tengo are an institution unto themselves, having perfected their craft of slow-burning, unassumingly insular indie rock in incremental baby steps since their formation in 1984. Almost three decades of building a language of wistfully melodic guitar rock without becoming redundant is no small feat, and Fade rises to the unique challenge by striking a middle ground between new territory and recalling YLT's finest hours. Fade is the first album for the band not recorded with producer Roger Moutenot, who had worked with the group on everything they put to tape since their 1993 breakthrough, Painful.
These days, every band seems eager to honor the anniversary of one of its landmark albums, usually in the form of a concert tour or an expanded reissue, and even Yo La Tengo have gotten into the act – a quarter century after they released their endlessly charming 1990 LP Fakebook, in which they covered a handful of their favorite songs and reworked a few of their own numbers in semi-acoustic fashion, YLT have recorded what amounts to a sequel, 2015's Stuff Like That There. Just like a sequel to a 1980s horror movie, Stuff Like That There follows the template of the original as closely as possible – there are two new songs, three remakes from the YLT back catalog, and nine covers, which range from the instantly recognizable (Hank Williams' "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," inspired by Al Green's version) to the thoroughly obscure (unless you're a Hoboken pop obsessive or a James McNew completist, "Automatic Doom" by the Special Pillows is probably not on your hit parade).