Dusted Reviews

Yo La Tengo - Summer Sun

today features
reviews charts
labels writers
info donate

Search by Artist

Sign up here to receive weekly updates from Dusted

email address

Recent Reviews

Dusted Reviews

Artist: Yo La Tengo

Album: Summer Sun

Label: Matador

Review date: Apr. 8, 2003

Yo La Tengo love their Mets, but their success instead closely parallels that of the hated NL East rival Atlanta Braves, winners of 11 consecutive division titles since 1991. In the same period of time, the Hoboken trio of Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew has released seven excellent full-length albums and established themselves as one of the most revered bands in rock. Like the Braves, the band could do no wrong over the past decade-plus, although they handled their fame with much more reticence than Larry ‘Chipper’ Jones.

Painful’s understated ferocity and Electr-O-Pura’s urbane felicity set the table for 1997’s I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, a seemingly perfect blend of noise and nuance. Mainstream prominence eluded the trio, but they still didn’t need day jobs so things were OK. Then came And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Yo La Tengo’s unintentional concept album about love and marriage. Sit-down concerts soon followed and Starbucks picked up “Our Way To Fall” for its CD compilation. It was quite the acquisition for the coffee conglomerate, a great love song on an album chock full of great love songs, and hopefully the band made a couple thou in the process, but it sparked a question: had Yo La Tengo, a band who’d been together almost two decades, fallen prey to middle age and its predisposition towards enervated sincerity (not to mention soul-sucking java joints)?

The short-sighted answer would probably be yes. Much of And Then Nothing centered around rather straightforward songs with prominent lyrics about love. But the album was more than that; in fact, it was flanked by two rather dense compositions – the opaque Everyday, aided by Downtown percussionist Susie Ibarra, and the 18-minute drone finale, “Night Falls on Hoboken”. As a whole, the album felt comparatively flaccid, but the eccentric electricity of earlier albums glowed brightly beneath the surface. No need for Viagra just yet.

Three years later, Summer Sun arrives just in time for baseball season (one would like to think this isn’t merely coincidence), and lo and behold, it’s the Braves in need of the energy boost, not Yo La Tengo. Fans of both baseball and music could remember the Summer of ’03 as the year Atlanta’s and Yo La Tengo’s career path went in opposite directions. Summer Sun is a stunner, a subtle but substantial collection of non-sequiturs that displays the scope of Yo La Tengo’s tweaked-out serenity.

Summer Sun contains bits of unabashed romanticism similar to that which haunted much of And Then Nothing, but remains steadfastly unpredictable throughout. “Nothing But You and Me” and “Don’t Have to Be So Sad” both feature Kaplan trope-free and straightforward with lyrics bordering on the mundane. Yet, Kaplan’s vanilla is offset by off-kilter Casio production and bassist William Parker’s presence in the mix. Parker’s restrained ebullience can make the slowest of songs vibrate with life, and these two, the tamest Summer Sun has to offer, are no exception.

The album avoids aesthetic similarity to past records – the DIY blur of Phil Morrison’s cover stands in symbolic contrast with And Then Nothing’s images of gleaming twilight (by Gregory Crewdson) – but, like each preceding Yo La Tengo project, it resonates with a desire to explore the limits of a signature sound without surrendering to affectation. While the summer months are often portrayed as an escape from the cerebral in favor of beach parties and bikinis, Summer Sun sounds like a fastidious attempt at genuine growth.

A resounding subtlety continues to define Yo La Tengo’s sound, but incongruity abounds on Summer Sun; shifts from drone pastiche to ’60s-style pop to burnin’ burnin’ funk tickle the senses without ever sounding drastic. The introductory “Beach Party Tonight,” with its malleable backward guitars and muffled voices glides effortlessly into the album’s probable hit “Little Eyes,” a Hubley-led rocker that sounds like I Can Hear the Heart minus feedback. “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float” floats along on vibraphones before shifting abruptly to the funky piano riff of “Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo”, an instrumental groove with organ flares and porcine sound effects.

Yo La Tengo’s fascination with free jazz apparently did not end on their split 7” with Other Dimensions in Music, released via their own Egon Records. While most rock bands would cower in the face of improvisation, Yo La Tengo seems to revel in its constantly evolving medium. ODiM artists Roy Campbell Jr., Daniel Carter, Sabir Mateen and Parker are all on board for Summer Sun. The quartet takes center stage on the album’s centerpiece, the 10-minute “Let’s Be Still,” a wandering haze of flute, trumpet, saxophone and submerged vocals, anchored by a constant, languid piano riff. The effect is fixating and unlike anything Yo La Tengo has ever captured on CD.

Lost in the bedroom banter surrounding And Then Nothing was McNew, whose contributions to the band over the past decade can’t be overstated. On Summer Sun, McNew takes lead vocal duties on the album’s most unique pop song, “Tiny Birds.” Warm aquatic rumblings in 6/4 time immediately set the song apart from its peers, before a sublime guitar phrase bursts forth along side McNew’s comforting intonation. The abstruse lyrics about “nights so black they’re blue” leave few clues as to subject matter, which contributes to the song’s equivocal beauty.

Nothing captures the cryptic, but light-hearted essence of Summer Sun like a line from “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float”: “If you want to be a romantic fool / you don’t have to say ‘I Love You’ / Just say what’s in your heart / Non-sequitur or not / and without even trying, find your punch-line.”

It seems as if Kaplan and Co. may have followed this bit of advice themselves when composing material for the album. From its innocuous title and blasé cover art to the delicate disregard of uniformity within, Summer Sun sounds like the inside joke Yo La Tengo always wanted to tell – a discombobulated masterwork of nudges, winks and knowing glances.

And they nailed the punchline.

By Otis Hart

Other Reviews of Yo La Tengo

The Sounds of the Sounds of Science

Nuclear War

Today is the Day

Prisoners of Love

I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass

Popular Songs


Read More

View all articles by Otis Hart

Find out more about Matador

©2002-2011 Dusted Magazine. All Rights Reserved.