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Beach Blanket Tengo


Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun

Matador, 2003

Rating: 4.2



Posted: April 8, 2003

By Laurence Station

No feedback. Guitar distortion, once a staple of Yo La Tengo's sound, has been relegated to the back catalogue on Summer Sun, the talented New Jersey trio's twelfth release. Granted, the signs have been obvious since 1997's I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One through 2000's And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (which limited its feedback roar to the pulse-quickening "Cherry Chapstick") that the band's been moving into more melodically subdued, intricately structured musical territory. The lyrics are no longer buried beneath crashing drums and furious, buzz-saw guitars. With And Then Nothing, Yo La Tengo signaled a new phase in its career, emphasizing words over chaos, refining the sonic touches developed over its near two-decade-old career. Summer Sun, while not as musically or thematically consistent as And Then Nothing, nonetheless sports a maturing musical sensibility that produces some of the trio's finest work yet.

Working with longtime producer Roger Moutenot and members of the free jazz outfit Other Dimensions In Music, amongst others, Georgia Hubley (drums), Ira Kaplan (guitar) and James McNew (bass) explore a jazzy-electronica sound, subtly underlined on "Little Eyes "(with its opening beat, like a hyperactive signal light flashing out of control) and the low rumble percolating just beneath he surface of "Today Is The Day." More overt statements include the digital flourishes dressing up "Tiny Birds" and the spongy electro-funk of "Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo," which could well be perceived as either a fitting tribute to or good-natured send-up of the Flaming Lips' "Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots Pt.2."

But it's the trio's self-assured sense of purpose that stands out on Summer Sun. Having long since mastered the creative cover (ably represented here by a country-inflected version of Big Star's "Take Care") and handily proven how hard they can rock (1986's Ride the Tiger through 1993's Painful), Kaplan and company have grown as lyricists and musicians, to the point where the group needn't assault with the amp cranked to 11, but can offer studied, patiently crafted work that doesn't have to meander for over ten minutes to feel spacious and epic (though the obligatory protracted jam can still be found here, on the languid, flute and trumpet-based "Let's Be Still"). From the pseudo-lounge of "Winter A-Go-Go" and funky rap of "Moonrock Mambo" to the perfect three-minute (okay, 4:30, but why quibble?) pop of "Season Of The Shark" to Kaplan's whispered, yearning vocal on "Don't Have To Be Sad", Yo La Tengo shows off its eclectic range, subtly expanding on its distinct signature sound. The only dud is "Nothing But You And Me," which starts out light and breezy before overstaying its welcome, growing tedious and redundant long before it's over.

The feeling of the titular "Summer Sun" is a bit misleading: This is a work for all seasons and moods, which detracts from an overall tonal uniformity. Nonetheless, Summer Sun is a progression on the delicate yet complex rhythms displayed on past releases, not so much a dramatic leap forward as a considered step in the right direction.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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