The wonder of Yo La Tengo isn’t that they began as a side project by a rock critic and his singing-drumming wife. The truly exceptional thing is how, after over a decade of independently released albums, the Hoboken, N.J., trio keeps improving. Is it the simple fact that they didn’t peak early, unlike many of their college-rock peers of the ’80s? Whatever the reason, I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One confirms what their last few albums have intimated: They’ve become our best old-school indie-rock band.
Always adept at striking a balance between hurricane-force dissonance and fragile serenity, Yo La crack open their sound even wider here. Their muted, after-hours guitar drone is in full effect. But splashes of piano or acoustic guitar add depth and airiness to the songs; on ”Autumn Sweater,” singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan entices his lover to escape with a hypnotic four-note organ hymn. As adults who still need to make a racket, they remain addicted to noise, but now the trio integrates the feedback into the arrangements, like squalls rumbling in the distance. And ”Center of Gravity” is that true rarity — a bossa-nova cocktail confection that isn’t gratingly campy.
Still, some things never change: Although they’re in their 30s, the plain-singing Kaplan and sweet-voiced drummer Georgia Hubley continue to write and murmur songs (”Damage,” ”Shadows”) as if they’re shy teens getting up the nerve to approach their latest crush. Nor would this be a Yo La Tengo album without pop-culture references (”We’re an American Band,” not a cover of the Grand Funk song but a chronicle of a hellish tour) or indulgences, like the intergalactic-Morse-code instrumental ”Spec Bebop.” But some indie-rock dreams never die, and Yo La Tengo’s beguiling body of work is proof that they still haven’t awakened from theirs. A-