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MUSIC REVIEWS: Yo La Tengo’s ‘Fade,’ Christopher Owens’ ‘Lysandre’

- - Monday, January 14, 2013

Fade

Yo La Tengo

Matador Records

★★★

Now entering their third decade together, Yo La Tengo have a mellowed a bit with age, their rough edges and genre-jumping tendencies replaced by a sound that's hazy and half-whispered. They keep things understated on their 13th album, "Fade," which sounds like the soundtrack to a forgotten collection of summertime home movies.

Vocals drift into the ether, guitars jangle softly, and drums plod ahead with leisurely determination, like clouds parting for a sun that never fully appears. Every song on "Fade" is bathed in that sort of half-light, which adds a warm wash to everything it touches.

Songs like "Two Trains" seem to move in gorgeous slow-motion. It can be hard to make out the actual lyrics, but it's easy to attach your own images to these tunes: children running through sprinklers, green grass growing in humid air, the muffled laughter of someone's backyard party echoing across the neighborhood. A tree spreads its limbs on the album's cover, as if to reinforce the summertime ambiance.

"Fade" turns over a new leaf, too, pairing Yo La Tengo with a new producer — Chicago's John McEntire — for the first time in nearly 20 years. Mr. McEntire doesn't disturb the band's sleepy-eyed state, but he does push it in interesting directions, adding some elegant strings to "Is That Enough" and anchoring the album's opener, "Ohm," with the rhythmic sounds of a tabla drum.

The album wraps up with "Before We Run," a medium-paced swirl of brass, repetitive percussion and murmured melodies. The song nearly fades out at the halfway mark before renewing itself for another three minutes, which are dominated by violins and a horn section. This is Yo La Tengo's version of a grand finale, proof that you don't need to break a sweat to keep an audience entertained.

 

Lysandre

Christopher Owens

Fat Possum Records

★★

After logging five years as frontman of the San Francisco-based band Girls, Christopher Owens strikes out on his own with "Lysandre," a solo album rooted in flower child pop music and — believe it or not — Renaissance folk songs.

Named after a French woman he met on the road, "Lysandre" traces Mr. Owens' evolution from rock star wannabe to professional musician. It's a concept album about his band's sudden rise to fame, with each song depicting a different milestone. "New York City" captures the euphoria of Girls' first show in the Big Apple, for example, while "Riviera Rock" — an instrumental tune that begins with the sound of waves lapping a shore — evokes memories of the band's tour in France.

If "Lysandre" feels like an autobiography, then the titular character doesn't show up until one of the final chapters. Once she does, the album takes a turn for the intimate, with acoustic guitars and softly-brushed percussion replacing the zanier moments of the album's first half. "Everywhere You Knew" is a crushingly tender account of the night Mr. Owens and Lysandre fell in love, and the image it burns into the listener's mind — one of two 20-somethings lying side-by-side in a European park, falling asleep with the stars above and the manicured grass beneath — is the album's indisputable highlight.

For a record that's meant to evoke the highs and lows of a 21st century indie musician, though, "Lysandre" flatlines under the weight of some bad arrangement choices. A rip-roaring saxophone solo hijacks the second half of "New York City," a move that evokes old-school Bob Seger more than present-day Manhattan, and the two instrumental "themes" that bookend the album sound like something you'd hear at a Renaissance fair, thanks to strummed lutes and tooting flutes.

Combine those songs with a handful of summery indie-pop tunes, including the excellent "Here We Go Again," and you're left with an album that tries to be too many things at once: a love story, a road journal, a commentary on the alienating aspects of fame. There's no cohesion here, even when snippets of the Baroque-sounding "Lysandre's Theme" pop up throughout the album, and "Lysandre" winds up being a mixed bag of hits and duds.