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Published: 2003/10/17
by Jesse Jarnow

Yo La Tengo, Bowery Ballroom, NYC- 10/12

NYC ROLL-TOP: Autumn Comes and All of a Sudden It’s Gone

The crowd at Yo La Tengo's tour-closing show at New York's Bowery Ballroom
on October 12th was bloody impressive. Quiet. So quiet, in fact, that
one could literally hear the floor of the venue creak under the weight of
self-consciously shifting feet. So quiet that, when somebody accidentally
stepped on a plastic cup, dozens of eyes turned to glare. And that was
great, because Summer Sun, Yo La Tengo's latest, is so quiet that
it's almost not there. On it, sounds flit through the breeze, saxophones and
flutes reflecting ungraspable melodies. There are guitars, but they are
transparent, virtually absent from the conscious surfaces of the songs.

"Here's a good way to describe it," Beach Boy Brian Wilson once said of
"Let's Go Away For Awhile," an ethereal quasi-exotica instrumental from
Pet Sounds that serves as a prelude to "Sloop John B": "Try to hum
it!" "Good luck," Beach Boys' historian David Leaf added. The same could be
said for "Beach Party Tonight," Summer Sun's lead track, and the set
opener at the Bowery. James McNew plucked a repetitive acoustic guitar
pattern, Georgia Hubley quietly drummed, and Ira Kaplan played muted organ
drones and whispered nearly unintelligible lyrics into the mic. All three
members moaned quietly, building a mood of stately autumnal ambience. As a
mood piece, it's a wonderful composition, and the live arrangement, boiled
down from a complex studio orchestration, nailed the essence of the weirdly
non-linear piece and used it as an overture for the evening's performance.

The band shifted into Velvets overdrive for "The Story of Jazz," off of
1987's New Wave Hot Dogs, shortly before settling down to "Little
Eyes," another tune from Summer Sun. The former worked, the latter
didn't, but their juxtaposition shows why Yo La Tengo are one of the best
bands working today. Like most of the tunes on Summer Sun, "Little
Eyes" is filled with gentle noise not immediately adaptable to the stage.
Unlike "Beach Party Tonight," it's got a catchy chorus and a guitar hook.
Naturally, being the song's recognizable face, the latter took precedence in
the live arrangement. So, Kaplan played it. And the song sounded fragile,
and not in an intended, fractured way. Too bad.

But not too bad, since "Little Eyes" is still a great song. More
importantly, it shows that nearly 20 years into their career, Yo La Tengo
are still willing to not only try new things, but to try a completely new
approach to their music — which, as "The Story of Jazz" demonstrated, was
once fairly typical Velvet Underground derived indie rock. It's a clichbut they are making perhaps the best music of their career, appearing
occasionally as singable pop, but filled with completely creative structural
weirdness. It is the former quality that firmly debunks any criticism that
Summer Sun merely sounds like the group's last two records. Like
Radiohead, the band has found a considerable challenge in translating the
material to live performance, employing loops and homemade beats and
switching instruments with precision.

It was this obvious challenge, inherent in their performance even after
nearly five months of touring, which made the Bowery show so deeply
satisfying. The band performed the bulk of the disc, including the haunting
"Season of the Shark," the grooving "Moonrock Mambo," the icy "Winter
A-Go-Go," the fusiony instrumental jam "Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo," and the
perfect "Tiny Birds." Some worked, some didn't. "Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo"
felt like a rudimentary bassline and skeletal drumbeat drenched in keyboard
feedback; hey, no harm in trying; the drums/guitar feedback formula has
worked for them with guitar countless times before, it just didn't seem to
be challenging here. "Little Birds," on the other hand, arranged for
chorused acoustic guitar, snare drum, and egg-shaker (with a dab of
keyboards), and sung by McNew with shaky confidence was magnificent.

With each passing the song, the crowd grew quieter and quieter. The band
rewarded with a whispered rendition of the Holy Modal Rounders' "Griselda,"
from 1990's covers album Fakebook. With the crowd basically in the
palm of their hand, the band delivered their punchline: a doo-wop
arrangement of Summer Sun's "Nothing But You and Me," replete with
backing tape, and a synchronized dance routine by McNew and Hubley. It was
impossible not to laugh. Almost sadly, perhaps, the mood was broken. Though
the crowd quieted down again, the moment had come and passed, and the room
didn't achieve the same frozen solitude again until the end of the band's
third encore. By that time, the band had continued to charm, via a thumping
version of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One's "Deeper Into
Movies," a raucous trio of Sun Ra tunes with members of the Sun Ra Arkestra
(looking resplendent in their Egyptian space get-ups), and another cover off
of Fakebook (The Mighty Cravers' "Emulsified"), before settling down
to another moment of perfection: And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside
Out’s "Our Way To Fall."

"Summer stays too long," McNew sang on "Tiny Birds" "Autumn comes and all of
a sudden it's gone…" Here or gone, the Moment came and left again. But,
knowing Yo La Tengo, it'll be back soon.

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