Being called a "critic's band" must feel like the musical equivalent of being called a "finesse team" in football: an underhanded compliment that says less about what you are (in Yo La Tengo's case, eclectic to the point of jukebox-like proficiency, creatively restless to the point of ADD, tasteful to the point of curating albums like they are a gallery-load of rare art) than what you aren't. Husband/wife duo Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, along with their bass-playing pal James McNew, have been at this indie thing longer than there's even been a thing called indie — 13 albums, 25 years — and on their latest LP, the cheekily-titled Popular Songs, they play the same game of musical spin-the-bottle they first perfected on their career high-water mark, 1996's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One.
So which Yo La Tengo do you want to hear today? For Euro-style Zero 7 downtempo that sounds like a remix of Yo La Tengo, press or say "1" (the emotionally-neutral, string-sweetened neurotic-rock of "Here to Fall"). For mid '70s ambient music for airports in the single-chord Brian Eno vein, press or say "2" (the 11-minute vamp "The Fireside," which could also pass for one of The Edge's experimental pedal journeys). For sunny-day real estate guaranteed to conjure up the jingle-jangle mornings with which Bettie Serveert once greeted us, press or say "3" ("Avalon or Someone Very Similar"). For '90s-style fuzztone-grunge of the sort YLT proudly plied on early classics such as "Sugarcube" and "Tom Courtenay," press or say "4" (the deliciously skronking, guitar-tastic "Nothing to Hide"). And so it goes.
This isn't to suggest that Yo La Tengo is simply the byproduct of an exceedingly well-pruned record collection. But what it does mean is like their long-running peers Sonic Youth, Hoboken's very own Treacherous Three have long since forsaken the pop mainstream in favor of turf that looks, feels and sounds more like the patchwork quilt of "home." So if that makes them a critic's band, guilty as charged. They remain one of American indie's most precious gifts to the world, making the kinds of records we'd all make if we were only that clever. Or that good.