Way back in 1985, when Yo La Tengo released its first single, “River of Water,” even they probably didn’t imagine they would become, in a characteristically low-key way, one of the most vital and longest-lasting outfits of that generation. While it’s hardly a classic, that single bears many of the trademarks the group has had ever since: Ira Kaplan’s driving guitar and murmured vocals, low-key humor in the title, and an impressively well-chosen cover on the B-side, Love’s “A House Is Not a Motel.” The band got a lot better quickly and began churning out great albums, pushing at the edges of what their sound is and can be, evolving from rough-hewn indie rock (arguable peak: 1989’s “President”) to pop-tinged “alternative” (1993’s “Painful”) to more experimental and atmospheric work (2000’s “And Then Nothing Turned Inside Out”). Since then their records have fused and/or toggled between those extremes, getting quieter or louder, often within the same album.
In a move likely to delight those of us who have missed the glorious sound of Kaplan strangling the shit out of his vintage Stratocaster, Yo La Tengo’s studio album No. 17, “This Stupid World,” is their loudest and liveliest outing in years, and opens with some prime slabs of said Strat-strangling on the seven-minute-plus “Sinatra Drive Breakdown.” It’s followed by “Fallout,” which has a skronking riff and could have been recorded in 1992 at the height of the alt-noisepop era, and then “Tonight’s Episode,” the guitars of which are almost entirely feedback over sort-of chanted vocals reminiscent of the group’s single greatest influence, the Velvet Underground.
How do you follow that? With an acoustic song, of course, “Aselestine,” a lovely, leisurely ramble sung by drummer Georgia Hubley. The album continues in that low-key acoustic vein for a couple more songs before picking up the pace again with “Brain Capers” and the hard drone of the title track, a sort of “Sister Ray”-meets-Spacemen-3 groove, and closing out with the atmospheric “Miles Away.”
“I want to fall out of time,” Ira Kaplan sings in “Fallout.” “Reach back, unwind.” Indeed — nearly 40 years into their career as a band, with “This Stupid World,” Yo La Tengo have reached another peak. Without overstating the case, that’s something not many artists who aren’t named Neil or Bob can say.