Yo La Tengo’s “I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass” is a beautifully sprawling mess of an album. Like a classic double-LP or a packed-to-the-gills compilation disc, the 77.5-minute album quantum leaps from one stylistic reference point to another while remaining, quintessentially, Yo La Tengo’s own. But while “I Am Not Afraid of You” is the band’s best work since 1997’s “I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One,” it lacks that album’s start-to-finish cohesion. Instead, the album provides ample space in which a listener can get lost, making for an initially uncaptivating but ultimately rewarding listen.
Yo La Tengo’s song-writing diversity is frankly disarming. From funk to ’60s girl group to art-punk to bossa nova, the band spreads its musical wings as wide on “I Am Not Afraid of You” as they ever have. A subtle aspect of this talent is their willingness to use a wide variety of instrumentation, but in moderation. This only adds more charm to the piano and strings of both the ballad “I Feel Like Going Home” (on which drummer Georgia Hubley’s vocals evoke Chan Marshall) and “Black Flowers,” which outdoes Stars at the Toronto band’s own brand of indie pop. The brass-and-cowbell falsetto of “Mr. Tough,” meanwhile, outmatches Belle and Sebastian and Beck at the same time. Even when the band sounds like nothing more than itself, the songs are accomplished and enjoyable (particularly the poppy organ of “I Should Have Known Better”).
But the most arresting tracks on “I Am Not Afraid of You” are the epic-length songs that frame the album and split it in half: 11-minute opener “Pass the Hatchet I Think I’m Goodkind,” 12-minute closer “The Story of Yo La Tango” and nine-minute midpoint “Daphnia.” “Pass the Hatchet” is a pointed reminder of recurrent Velvet Underground comparisons (Yo La Tengo even portrayed the Velvets in the 1996 film “I Shot Andy Warhol”). After Hubley and bassist James McNew kick off the very brief riff, guitarist Ira Kaplan launches into a distorted jam straight from “White Light/White Heat.” But the song is as much My Bloody Valentine as “Sister Ray” — the distant vocals and even more distant handclaps and toms accentuate the guitar’s swooping and soaring.
The similarly structured “Story of Yo La Tango” recapitulates the guitar-over-riff pattern of “Pass the Hatchet.” Kaplan’s formidable wall of guitar and Hubley’s echoing coos in the slowly ascending track evoke shoegaze (another frequent critical touchstone for the band) even more than the leadoff track does.
The album’s divider “Daphnia” is its only misstep. Rather than adding ambience, the fireplace-crackle static merely distracts. At the same time, the two-note acoustic guitar riff and tremulous steel guitar noodling (along with the static) suggest third-rate Eno-Lanois imitation. Especially for a band that has written four film scores, “Daphnia” is a disappointment that effectively removes the listener from the album.
The other problem with “I Am Not Afraid of You” is its lack of a hit. More specifically, no track compels the listener to return to the album; no hook grabs tightly enough to get stuck in one’s head. The songs are pleasant and diverting, but without a “Sugarcube” or even an “Autumn Sweater,” the burden is on the listener to play the album frequently enough, and pay enough attention, to explore on his own. Certainly this type of devotion will be well worth the time investment, but the best albums (like “I Can Hear the Heart”) make that devotion seem effortless. For this reason, “I Am Not Afraid of You” will likely be hailed by previous Yo La Tengo fans, but win them few new devotees.
Which may be how the band likes it. After 12 albums, three compilations (with a fourth due in December) and a collaboration with Jad Fair, Yo La Tengo is still small enough to play a 200-capacity venue for the eight nights of Hanukkah without selling out in five seconds. Or for Kaplan to play guitar for “A Matter of Trust,” the otherwise all-comedian-comprised Billy Joel cover band named for the one song in their repertoire. Or for the band to participate in fundraising activities for WFMU Radio each year.
Nevertheless, the album is less than ideal, if only for its less-than-striking first spins. Perfect for a long drive or a rainy weekend afternoon (situations where its length won’t be tiresome), “I Am Not Afraid of You” is a varied and organic album that will only reinforce Yo La Tengo’s legacy as the best — and most popular — local band. Ever.