Whether or not Yo La Tengo are being tongue in cheek with the title of their 14th album, Popular Songs does find Hoboken's finest embracing pop song structures with a renewed degree of enthusiasm -- this isn't quite the Yo La Tengo "loaded with hits" album, but for a band that's shown an increasing willingness to explore the outer limits of its music in the studio, Popular Songs features nine tunes you can hum along with and sometimes even dance to. Those who got high marks in math will notice that Popular Songs has 12 selections, and as befits a band that covered George McCrae's "You Can Have It All," on the second half of this set YLT take the opportunity to stretch out and invite the spirit for a while -- the total time of the first nine tracks on Popular Songs is roughly the same as the last three, which should tell you something about the album's dual nature. "Periodically Double or Triple" and "If It's True" in the first half are two of the most user-friendly songs this band has recorded in quite some time, the former a playfully funky R&B number with a killer bassline and the latter a slice of sweet uptown soul complete with a Hammond B-3 and a polished string section, while "I'm on My Way" and "All Your Secrets" are low-key but beautifully crafted examples of smart pop for grownups that won't insult your intelligence or your imagination. If "By Two's" and "Here to Fall" reflect YLT's trippier inclinations, the melodies give them a firmer backbone than many of their previous gestures in this direction, and "Nothing to Hide" is a bracing and joyous dose of rock & roll. The first half of the album is smart enough and strong enough that the final three cuts almost seem like a letdown; "More Stars Than There Are in Heaven" is lovely, but sounds like a rehash of the ideas the band worked out so well on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, and the minimalist acoustic guitar textures of "The Fireside" are almost too fragile to support its 11-minute length. Popular Songs closes with the usual Ira Kaplan guitar freakout; "And the Glitter Is Gone" is a fine plunge into the valley of skronk, with Georgia Hubley and James McNew bashing away with equal fervor and giving this album a typical but rousing finale. But as fine as those nearly 16 minutes of controlled chaos are, it's the first half of Popular Songs that you're more likely to come back to, where by thinking in a small space Yo La Tengo have challenged themselves a bit and beautifully risen to the occasion.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming