If And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out
was a warm mid-June evening (and for purposes of this review, it was), then Summer Sun
is less a blaze of overheated glory than the just-after-dawn period when the titular orb is peeking over the horizon, hinting at its own power and casting shadows into the middle distance.
Why is it that critics have to resort to overwrought metaphor when a band releases an album that is too close for comfort, in both style and content, to their last album? I don't know, but it's hard to resist, especially when the self-similar product is as good as Summer Sun. It seems to somehow demean the accomplishment of producing two such quiet, reflective, polished, affecting works of art in a row to simply bleat "If you liked the last record, you are absolutely guaranteed to like this one" -- even if that happens to be God's honest truth.
Judging by its sales success, a large number of you bought and played the hell out of And Then..., and unless you're completely put off by the idea of Yo La Tengo producing two records that mine the same rich vein of texture and emotion with equal levels of brilliance, you should all troop to the record store and buy this one as quickly as possible. Hell, most of you already did buy it, and are only reading this review to see whether or not I'll say something idiotic about a record you've quickly grown to love. Let's see, shall we?
Summer Sun is actually far less precious than And The Nothing -- more of a party record, if that party is of a decidedly muted sort. It achieves a nice balance between the rocking pop tunes that the band sprinkled throughout their previous, more electric albums and the meditative whispers that they have adopted as their current metier. Songs like "Little Eyes" and "Season of the Shark", though by no means the kind of electrifying guitar freakouts that used to be Ira's stock in trade, are just as engaging and interesting as those songs were.
It would be easy to characterize this new quiet as "maturity", but it seems to me more like a groove that is working well for the group at the moment. The whispered anti-lullaby "Nothing but You and Me", with its imprecations to "wake up", presumably addressed to a coma victim (who, one gets a sneaking suspicion, was put in that position by the narrator) is all atmosphere and past menace, a combination that could really only be accomplished with a quiet, layered approach. The Velvet-esque drone underlying "Tiny Birds" would, similarly, be completely lost in any but the sparsest of surroundings.
The more time you spend with Summer Sun, the more fun it turns out to be. The band is creeping up on twenty years of playing together, and the invention that continues to fuel their partnership is most emphatically at play on lively instrumental tracks like "Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo" and the gorgeous, jazzy, (mostly instrumental) "Let's Be Still". The latter unspools slowly over the course of ten-plus minutes of loveliness, flute and trumpet lines playing freely over a simple piano and drum figure, with the occasional hint of lyrics in the background. There's something about the economy of the notes and riffs in these tracks, in particular, that makes them sound both familiar and inventive, comforting and novel fun.
For the second time in a row, YLT has skewed pretty, as opposed to raucous; you may, while enjoying this effort, feel the tiniest of fears for their future musical flexibility, but the ample signs of creative life that cover Summer Sun from beginning to end should more than allay that anxiety. Besides, you own it already, don't you? Admit it.