How awful it must be for all of the bands that are not Yo La Tengo. Year in, year out, the Hoboken, New Jersey, trio delivers the kind of honest, beautiful music that few groups even know exist, let alone get close to capturing. The 10th record from these indie-rock stalwarts is a quiet effort filled with organ, synths, whispered vocals and restrained guitars. It finds the band retreating, not just from its Sonic Youth via Velvet Underground, strum and chug drone, but almost from the world itself. The record opens with an organ whirr and tattoo drumbeat and ends with a 17-minute-long ramble; what's in between is damn amazing.
The genius of Yo La is in the way that it marries sonic atmosphere and strong songwriting. Hovering organs and six-string soundscapes fill up space horizontally, making expansive room for the simple chord progressions and delicate vocals. Opening things up means that the hushed tones of "Tears Are in Your Eyes" approach a near somnambulistic mellowness. Drummer Georgia Hubley sings over a delicate piano fill as the track floats with only her breathy waver keeping the song from drifting away.
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These not-quite ballads are intimate and introspective, the calm music inviting a closer listen. Singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan doesn't have what you'd call a great voice, even when singing full throttle. Here, when the volume is down, he wears his frailty on his sleeve; it's the sound of soul searching. When Kaplan breaks into a spoken-word section during "The Crying of Lot G," questioning his response to being told, "all we do is fight," you suspect it's a conversation he's had with himself quite often. On "The Last Days of Disco," he sounds close to breaking down, the brushed drums and hushed guitars matching his tone perfectly. It's not quite couple's therapy, but he and wife Hubley are contemplating relationships and trading vocals throughout the record.
Even when they finally let the guitars off the leash -- way off -- on the more typically Tengo "Cherry Chapstick," they don't lose the song under the squeals of Kaplan's instrument. That's what's precisely so exquisite about Inside-Out -- heartfelt songs and carefully constructed production with just enough free-spirited love of rock 'n' roll.