Most Yo La Tengo albums come on like new collections of sounds, as if the band were digging into the very properties of music itself for raw material. 1990's Fakebook found incomparably warm, strummy tones for its obscure cover versions; 1993's Painful took the rock organ places even the Velvet Underground hadn't dreamt; and 1995's Electr-O-Pura unleashed a torrent of squalling guitar noise. The three Hobokeners were like diligent painters, finding entirely new families of colors.
But with I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One in 1997, that changed; they began to combine their colors into new patterns and fresh textures. Besides their strengths as experimentalists, Kaplan and company have always been great craftsmen and great pop melodicists, and what that album lost in adventure it made up for by refining their approach. The same is true of the new And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. While Electr-O-Pura favored the band's intense, noisy side, this is a record made up almost entirely of gentle and low-key songs, many with Hubley's wistful vocals.
The album's slow numbers are as good as anything the band has ever done, especially Hubley's countryish "Tears Are in Your Eyes" and Kaplan's nostalgic "The Crying of Lot G" (which must be the most delicate homage to the writer Thomas Pynchon ever penned). "Cherry Chapstick," an electrified, feedback-drenched wigout that recalls Sonic Youth, also will satisfy fans (especially the seriously caffeinated ones) pining for the group's more discordant days.
With the most innovative music happening on turntables and in producers' studios, it's hard not to wonder if guitar-driven indie rock has become speech in a dead language. Despite the cheering of the record's press release, And Then Nothing does not break new ground for the band, and it probably contains an atmospheric song (or two) too many. But in a day when even indie-rock stalwarts like Sebadoh and Pavement release second-rate albums, it's refreshing just to have top-shelf work from a major old-school band. And it's startling to see an already "adult" band make a record even more mature than what it's prepared us for. Indie rock may not have many years left, but these three seem not to know it. They'll hum their way through the sunset.