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Yo La Tengo Returns for Summer

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Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun

The dissonance between the album’s title, Summer Sun, and the jacketed bandmembers on its blurred cover photo hints at the melancholy persistent on Yo La Tengo’s most recent recording. It’s a formula the Hoboken trio perfected with 2001’s And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out: numerous downtempto numbers permeated by a sweet, almost self-conscious sadness (hence the cheer-up-champ lyrics on “Season of the Shark”) that is occasionally forgotten altogether on a few rollicking tracks (in this case, clustered in the latter half and including the whimsically titled “Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo” and “Moonrock Mambo”).

In an interview for NPR’s Morning Edition to promote And Then Nothing…, a reporter asked about the band’s follow-up plans. Georgia Hubley* intoned, almost pleadingly, “instrumental record.” She proved prescient, and within a year YLT self-released Sounds of the Sounds of Silence, the soundtrack to a all-underwater sea-life documentary. The soundtrack seemed to exorcise their guitar demons (alternating droning and squealing guitarwork characterized the band in the1980s and 90s). The band’s 2002 Billboard Top 10 EP featuring Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War” (in mp3), complete with a chorus of cursing schoolchildren, also relieved some pent-up angst—and was good for a few laughs (“Push that button, your ass got to go. What you gone do, without your ass?”) while the rest of the world was talking about, well, nukes and war.

Having thus gratified their experimental urges and held their tongues (or rather, pens) for a while, YLT set out to record Summer Sun. Their interest in avant jazz and improvisation remains vital, however, to what is arguably the bands most lyric-driven record. To lay down the album, YLT and long-time producer Roger Moutenot were joined by more than a half-dozen artists (including members of the Jazz improve collective Other Dimensions in Music) who added horns, strings, flute, and upright bass to YLT’s standard guitars-organs-drums lineup on several tracks. Ironically, considering the recording took place in Nashville, the pedal steel appears only once—the closer “Take Care,” a Big Star cover. What might be considered the album’s musical opus, “Let’s Be Still,” shines thanks to trumpeter Roy Campbell Jr., who evokes Miles and Chet with clear tone and languid phrasing.

photo © Matthew Salacuse.

After almost two decades as rock-and-roll anti-stars, Yo La Tengo—particularly Georgia and bandmate/husband Ira Kaplan—seems uncharacteristically satisfied retreading musical ground in order to build compositions around lyrics, rather than vice versa (the buried vocals on”Beach Party Tonight” excepted). The past three YLT “official” Matador albums have progressed toward nuance rather than novelty. The lyrics on Summer Sun, or many of them, are confessional and delivered with an air of resignation punctuated by a sense of relief, as if the time has finally come to sing them. Personal lyrics and the theme of seasons—and of emotional seasons, perhaps depression—abound, and measured arrangements push the sincere lyrics to the fore.

Over electric guitar and shaker on “Tiny Birds,” James McNew sings “Don’t be sad when it’s time to say good night. I’ll be there to make sure that you sleep tight. I’m your friend when you need a friend, until there’s nothing left in the world to make you cry.” On “Little Eyes” Georgia, bolstered by Ira’s falsetto and steady drum beat, coos “You can only hurt the ones you love, not the ones your thinking of.” A scratchy loop is blanketed with piano and bass guitar on the tellingly-titled “Don’t Have to Be Sad.” Ira sings/mumbles, “Last night, I was trying to read in bed. I got to watching you sleep instead. Even when I got tired, I couldn’t stop. Because I love you so, and I pray you know. But I’m not one for praying. You knew I couldn’t say that without making a joke.”

Even when they’re despondent, YLT can have fun and be funny, as on “Nothing But You and Me,” when Ira begs “Won’t you please come back to me?” like a timid R&B crooner over a metronome-like drum machine—or on the more lighthearted “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float,” when he explains “I like to hold hands when we walk, I’m not averse to pillow talk, but I prefer a private joke, the memory it evokes, because it’s our punchline.” Fortunately, YLT increasingly lets fans in on the tears and jokes.

*A typical review would identify bandmembers by their instrument, but in the case of Yo La Tengo, any attempt to pin down the multifaceted musicians is futile. Their concerts sometimes resemble a game of musical chairs.

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  • Eric Olsen

    Nice review Nathan, I like this one but not as much as And Nothing, which is one of my Top 10 faves of the last 10 years.

  • Tom Johnson

    I like it too, but find myself swimming a little bit – it lacks a certain amount of grip with me, and I feel lost midway through the album. It’s not a bad thing, necessarily, because it has a kind of ethereal feel about it that calms me immensely. Great album to listen to after a stressful day, especially on a long drive home where you don’t want anything to aggravate you.

    And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out is one of those “oh my God” musical moments for me – upon hearing it, I was shocked at what I’d been missing out on, having never heard the band before.

  • cephusj

    Sort of off the topic but my two fav YLT songs are Sea Urchins and Night Falls on Hoboken

  • Nathan Lott

    Thanks for reading the above diatribe and for the feedback. My wife too prefers And Nothing… to Summer Sun. I think both are bit monotonous next to I Can Hear the Heart…, which is my favorite YLT album because it displays their full musical range but doesn’t come off disjointed. As for a favorite song, it would have to be their cover of William DeVaughn’s “Be Thankful for What You Got” from the Little Honda EP.