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Published: 2003/04/26
by Chris Gardner

Summer Sun – Yo La Tengo

Matador Records 548-2

If the evanescent heat waves rising off of the concrete had a sound, you
would hear it wending through the swirl of sounds that opens Summer
Sun on "Beach Party Tonight." Backward masked
guitars and softly blown horns introduce the album in a dream, and the next
track asks us to wake up. Summer Sun is a whisper of an album, so
much so that the piano may well be the heaviest instrument on this dream of
summer from the Hoboken trio. This summer sun emits rays that bathe rather
than blister, the kind you long for during the long winter rather than the
kind you run from in the sweat-soaked swelter of summer proper.

The disc tempers the already sedated sounds of 2000's _And Then Nothing
Turned Itself Inside-Out_, which found the band forsaking much of their
heavy noise rock and settling into more electronic and atmospheric spaces.
On last summer's Sounds of the Sounds of Science, the group further
evinced a reverence for silence that carries over here. The vocals are
hushed, the guitars washed, the drums subdued, the themes intimate. It is
easy to say that the band has mellowed with age, but that feels incomplete.
This disc is decidedly adult, but there is no sense of complacency, no sense
that they have settled. This is a quiet album, but the ideas are bubbling

Much of the album is just plain pretty. Georgia Hubley's "Little Eyes"
begins with an electronic pulse and rides a guitar sound like a
reverberating steel drum into the
beautiful pop spaces the band inhabits so easily. Strip Ira Kaplan's
"Season of the Shark" of its lush overtones and it would nestle nicely into
Fakebook, a primarily acoustic effort that flashes the same sunny pop
simplicity. It only makes sense that a song about the inside jokes between
a couple should have a title that no one else could fathom, but the loose
bounce of Ira's "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float" actually evokes the
title quite well. Georgia Hubley seems to be deeper in the summer than
Kaplan. "Winter A Go-Go" has the keyboard tone and swing of old beach
blanket songs, but a nifty tempo drag leading into the chorus and the
vibraphone that follows bring on the real sunshine.

After all that prettiness, the simple and forceful piano of the Krautrockian
"Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo" feels like a wake-up call. The guitars caterwaul,
bleat, hiss and
scratch behind the figure but always leave the piano at the fore. It is a
shade of the grating
noise-rock excursions the band was once known for, throwing the piano out
like a life preserver to people who don't want to wade out into the noise
untethered. It's also the first and only real break in mood.

This album isn't all sunshine, as several of Ira Kaplan's tunes swim in a
muted moodiness. They seem to be full of ambiguous, unheard sighs whether
he's on the good or bad side of love. The narrator of "Nothing But You and
Me" stands on the front end of a few potentially shameful weeks, offering
his leaving lover a whispered plea for a second chance whose probability for
success is found in the ominous undercurrent of the music. Smothered
guitars drone in like warning signals, and rocks strike the steel hull of a
ship and ping back into the waters. In short, it doesn't look promising.
On "Don't Have to Be So Sad", he sings, "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," so softly that he could sing it to her then and not wake her. The
upright bass fits perfectly here under a drum machine with piano tinkling in
the distance and guitar sweeping in half-drone.

The album's sprawler clocks in well over the ten minute mark. "Let's Be
Still" wraps around a four note piano figure. Kaplan and Hubley sing in
unison over a steadily
brushed drum beat and a shaker. The guitar swoops by from time to time, but
the bulk of the music here comes from Other Dimensions in Music
and Sabir Mateen. The upright bass, trumpet, flutes flutter between each
other, staying masterfully apart. Each player is playing the same way, but
they don't play together. It's the old, "I'm not laughing at you…" joke.
They aren't playing with each other; they are playing near each other. The
resulting exercise is gorgeously adrift, paradoxically hovering in the same
blissful space while constantly changing.

Summer Sun is easily the softest work in Yo La Tengo's discography,
but that needn't be a fault. It seems rather a logical continuation of the
ideas the band began
pursuing in smaller pieces with I Hear the Heart Beating As One. The
only flaw in this album is that it keeps trying to crawl into the
background. While it definitely rewards close listening (read: headphones),
the album is so consistently quiet that it rarely grabs the
casual listener's attention. While their other albums often shake the
listener by jumping
from sound to sound, genre to genre, or tempo to tempo, Summer Sun
stays right where it is, and by the time Georgia closes the door with her
beautiful rendering of Big Star's "Take Care", you may find yourself asking
where this 77 minute beauty went.

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