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coverpic flag US - New Jersey - Full Moon 81 - 05/16/03

Yo La Tengo
Summer Sun
Matador

I'll wager that most people's idea of a summer album is one with sun-drenched harmonies, upbeat lyrics, a bouncing carefree beat, and maybe even an atmosphere of beer-soaked abandon. But this summer stereotype is nowhere near to conveying the full range of emotions experienced during this most deceptive of seasons.

I envisaged a 'summer album' by Yo La Tengo would be in the style of the Beach Boys: lush melodies, gorgeous arrangements, joyous, harmonised vocals, and a touch of fear and regret that the sunshine won't last. In a sense 'Summer Sun' is an archetypal summer album as it is superficially uplifting, but provides reassurance that when the shadows begin to grow you're not alone in feeling cold and listless.

It's an album of two distinct sides, and this is to be expected from a band who most likely listen to a great deal of vinyl from the last fifty years. It's this classic 'album' feel that makes a new release by Yo La Tengo so exciting for me. This may not be their best album, and in some ways this proved to be a massive disappointment during my first few spins. But looking on the bright side a half-decent Yo La Tengo record still beats most of the other stuff on the shelves.

I think my initial disappointment came when I had that sneaking feling that there wasn't anything particularly 'new' on offer here. After their majestic The Sounds of the Sounds of Science album, I was expecting as much of a leap forward in sound. A bit like hearing Midnite Vultures, the first 'proper' album by Beck, and a real disappointment after the genius of Mutations. It's a genuine shame that Sounds... won't get much of a hearing outside the vanguard of diehard YLT fans because it's an absolute masterpiece, enthralling and surprising on every listen.

What I first noticed on hearing Summer Sun was that Ira's otherwise excellent lead on "Little Eyes" sounds very familiar; that the drum machine pattern on "Nothing But You and Me" is nicked directly from "Saturday", but without the effects to liven it up. And then the jazzy feel of side two completely threw me: what the hell is going on when YLT start using acid jazz flutes, leaden piano riffs, and a horn section that sounds incredibly forced?

I decided I would forgive them all these misdemeanours as I fell in love with three of the album's finest tracks from the first half: "Little Eyes", "Season of the Shark", and "Tiny Birds". After the forgettable scene-setting opener of "Beach Party Tonight", woozy with heat haze, "Little Eyes" is a gorgeous first song proper, with Georgia's crisp drums and perfectly intoned vocal really stealing the show. "Season of the Shark" is Ira's standout, with a truly sublime summer melody, breezy but with a touch of melancholy: 'Sure I know it's hard/But know that it's the same for everyone'. And "Tiny Birds" has James McNew striking gold: the intro is like sunshine shimmering on surf, before the guitar line breaks through and really lifts the tempo, carrying his charming vocals into the clouds.

It wasn't until about the tenth listen that I began to adjust my focus away from side one, and try and derive some enjoyment from the second side. YLT's exemplary way of turning practice-room jams into songs that walk the thread-thin line between the security of a song structure and the freedom of chaotic improvisation seems to be lacking here. Jazz is an obvious source of inspiration for any musician seeking to stretch their capacity as an instrumentalist, weaving around a tune; and YLT here even employ William Parker on bass, even though it's hard to pick out where he may actually be playing. However, by using obviously 'jazzy' riffs, the songs end up sounding too leaden and pat to be really enjoyable.

That's not to say the whole of the second side falls flat. "Don't Have to Be So Sad", despite the sickeningly insular lyrics about yet another of Ira and Georgia's little moments, has a moody groove and the only evidence I can yet discern of William Parker twanking away on bass. While And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out tended to delight and enlighten as far as the lyrics were concerned, some of the lyrics on Summer Sun show a disappointing lack of invention, Ira in particular resorting to telling banal little stories that fail to engage. "Winter A-Go-Go" has another of Georgia's beautiful vocal leads and drum patterns, and a shimmering vibraphone part. And the vibraphone rescues "Moonrock Mambo" in the second half by carrying the song away from some tiresome vocals and overtly funky basslines into a lovely refrain of 'I want to be next to you'.

"Tiny Birds" aside, James's contributions seem to be a little lacking too, his characteristically melodious basslines kept in check by the relatively uninspiring songs. Previously his way has been to play around the tune with verve, creating little melodic jumps and flourishes that never cease to make a song great. However, as many of these songs jam around in a jazzy fashion, the role of the bass seems to slip into the background, anchoring the rest of the instruments with dull plodding. I've heard that the new Dump record is excellent, so perhaps I'll have to get my fix of James McNew genius there.

I really, really hope that Ira and Georgia aren't ageing too gracefully. There are no moments of chaos here, which is what made The Sounds of the Sounds of Science so great. The only time I can sense Ira itching to let rip on his axe is during the fade out of "Nothing But You and Me"; thankfully "Season of the Shark" follows so it's difficult dwell on that disappointment for too long. However, on the whole the album feels too mannered and, dare I say it, a little detached and smug. Part of what I have previously identified as YLT's greatness is their way of sounding inclusive: they draw you into their songs and make you feel at home before you realise how idiosyncratic and charming that home is. By revealing the quirky ins and outs of their relationship in greater depth on And Then Nothing..., they now seem too content to just put their slippers on and play us some nice songs. Maybe after 'Sounds . . .' they wanted something a bit more accessible. But in making their sound a little too user-friendly I find less warmth and love for their music, which is a genuine shame.

Copyright © 2003 Tim Clarke e-mail address

You may also want to check out our Yo La Tengo articles/reviews: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Fade, I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass, I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, John Dee, Oslo, Norway, 02.11.06, Popular Songs, Prisoners of Love: A Smattering of Scintillating Senescent Songs 1985-2003, Stuff Like That There, Stupid Things EP, The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, You Can Have It All b/w Ready-Mades.

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