Five years in the making, Yo La Tengo bassman James McNew's latest release as Dump is proof that his contribution to the Hoboken, New Jersey-based band (or critic's wet dream) is an enormous one. Transcending McNew's humble four-track recording origins, Grown-Ass Man
is an intelligent brew of bare-bones Casio drumbeats, static-driven guitar lines and widescreen arrangements (in theory, at the very least, if only occasionally in practice).
Grown-Ass Man zig-zags all across the map, willfully scattershot and free from the studied cool that has characterized the last few Yo La Tengo releases. McNew proves there's nothing wrong with either approach, provided the player has skill -- and Dump is chock full of skillful genre exercises, as illustrated over the course of a baker's dozen tracks. "Basic Cable" rocks somewhere in the vicinity of YLT's "Cherry Chapstick", while "Peggy's Blues" shows off McNew's softer side -- it's a thoughtful ballad accompanied by a gorgeously stylized harmony during the plaintive chorus. "I'm On Your Side" goes a step further and synthesizes a Shirelles/Shangri-Las feel with mournful strings and McNew's fragile falsetto. "Daily Affirmation" is an extension of YLT's deft ability to craft a minimalist melodic idea into an eight epic dirge; equal parts "Don't Fear the Reaper" and Phil Collins's "In the Air Tonight", it's one of the few risks McNew takes on the album and the rewards are bountiful. "Silver Lining" is pure sweetness and light and serves as Dump's strongest statement that a melody with a strong hook is king in the land of spaced-out rockers and smitten four-track confessionals.
Never one to shy away from covering a tune (see Dump's homemade tribute to Prince, That Skinny Motherfucker With the High Voice (2001)), McNew steps up with three witty takes on a Thin Lizzy rocker ("Cowboy Song"), an R&B ballad and the Marvin Gaye-Mary Wells duet, "Once Upon a Time" (featuring Sue Garner). In Dump's hands, Gerald LeVert's 1999 rhythm and blues hit "Mr. Too Damn Cool" is not fodder for some arty indie-makeover, but rather the very same tear-jerking, slow-burning groove it originally was. The same can be said for the Gaye-Wells track -- imitation is the order of the day, not interpretation. In the end, all three tracks are winners, and further underscore Dump's unstated goal of setting its sights on any musical style with breath in its lungs.
I'm not sure if the album title and artwork are meant to suggest a sort of middle-aged self-loathing or a declaration of matured confidence. Rest assured, however, that Dump demonstrates that everything comes up roses, as long as you play what you like to listen to. If the shape-shifting songs and styles on Grown-Ass Man are any indication of McNew's listening habits, the five-year wait for the next album should be well worth it.