US - New Jersey - Full Moon 81 - 05/16/03
Yo La Tengo
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