If rock required a caretaker for its creative flame, it could do a lot worse than Yo La Tengo singer/guitarist Ira Kaplan. The one-time rock critic and his crew possess an encyclopedic knowledge of the form (witness their annual covers-by-request pledge drive performances for Jersey's WFMU), and they've developed such facility over their quarter-century of making music that they can pull off just about anything they like. Originally inspired by the yin-yang of Velvet Underground's personality (from the gentle textured pop of "Stephanie Says" to the fuzz-drenched freak-out "European Son"), they've outgrown their masters to mix beauty and brawn in a variety of shades that rivals Sherwin-Williams. From drummer Georgia Hubley's tender Mo Tucker-ish croon, tiptoeing over dreamy organ-driven shimmer ("Avalon or Someone Very Similar"), to funky self-possessed two-steps ("Periodically Double or Triple"), flamenco-tinged acoustic paeans ("When It's Dark"), and chunky, garage-rock throwdowns ("Nothing to Hide"), their latest, Popular Songs, spans the spectrum before closing with a trio of epic nine- minute-plus tracks. Their loving attention to songcraft flirts and shimmies, whatever its stylistic guise, drawing the listener into their orbit like the Pied Piper, and producing several of the finest albums of the past 15 years.
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