When indie rock veterans Yo La Tengo titled their new album I Am Not Afraid of You and I Will Beat Your Ass, they surely knew they were giving their fans' expectations a rough, brotherly tickle. Not that the Hoboken, N.J., trio's 20-year-career has lacked comedy or surprise; it's just that their cozy, introspective avant-rock has hardly brought ass-beating to mind.
Granted, their early output had frontman Ira Kaplan blasting feedback all over the place, but it's been a long time since YLT has let their amplifiers get all loud and screechy on record. Between 2000's And Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, 2003's Summer Sun and a handful of soundtrack projects, YLT's music during our spooked 21st century has aimed mostly at a persistent, slowly pulsing mood. Though they've remained inspired, much of the new-millennium YLT has kept contented listeners in their PJs well into Saturday afternoon.
It's evident that something else is going on, though, as dirty chords warm up on Beat Your Ass' 10-minute opener, "Pass the Hatchet, I Think I'm Goodkind." On it, Kaplan revisits his viscerally unkempt guitar playing and adds washed-out vocals that hover over James McNew's driving bass and Georgia Hubley's thundering drums.
Early into its 77 minutes, Beat Your Ass asserts itself as their most energetic and eclectic release since the '90s. The album genre-hops better than most mix tapes, moving seamlessly through sunshiny, horn-driven pop, psychedelic rock, surf punk, bedroom ballads and moonlit instrumentals.
Yo La Tengo's impressive tenure as one of indie rock's most satisfying bands has little to do with indulging journalists. When asked for some elaboration on the giggly, fight-picking album title, Kaplan replies, over the phone from New Jersey, "We are intentionally not specific about that stuff. We want to encourage people like you to read into things for your own connections."
When asked whether the group consciously moved from their formerly more ambient sound back to a more eclectic, out-front-in-the-speakers sound, Kaplan responds, "We really don't draw those distinctions. It just happens naturally."
On the subject of the band's unique, fan-pleasing gigs, though, Kaplan is more talkative. YLT participate in a number of fundraisers every year, most notably pledge drives for WFMU, Jersey City's free-form radio, and their Hanukkah shows eight straight nights of concerts held at Maxwell's, their hometown Hoboken venue.
For the WFMU pledge drives, joining members are given the power to request any song, and the group attempts to play it on the spot. A compilation of their performances on WFMU, Yo La Tengo is Murdering the Classics, was released this year and is full of sweaty fumbling. But, as always, YLT's infectious love for rock 'n roll shines through.
"We really do think of that record as, essentially, a comedy record," says Kaplan. "And there is something kind of interesting to sort of feel like, you know, what if you try and fail? And then you can find out the consequences maybe aren't as dire as you thought they were."
On Yo La Tengo's Matador Records Web site, fans are given another unorthodox treat. Visitors are invited to film themselves saying, "I am not afraid of you and I will beat your ass." Scrolling through the hundreds of mostly out-of-shape folks with wire-rimmed glasses and balding scalps taunting the camera, you get the same feeling of brash and playful self-empowerment that YLT dispenses on their great new album.
Yo La Tengo with Why?
Boulder Theater, 2032 14th St., Boulder
Tuesday, Oct. 10, 8:30 p.m.
Tickets: $20, all ages; call 303/786-7030 or visit bouldertheater.com.