o La Tengo is currently on a winning streak unparalleled in indie rock history. Most of the underground titans of the last twenty years have had at least one album in their prime that could probably be considered a flop of sorts (Sonic Youth’s Experimental Jet Set, R.E.M.’s Monster) or didn’t last long enough to have a chance to go sour (My Bloody Valentine, The Pixies), but Yo La Tengo has had the longevity of the former examples and the consistency of the latter’s great works, remaining the one constant in the tremulous musical world we live in. Every album they’ve released in the past ten years has been at least a 9.0, and even though they’ve taken their time with the full lengths (only four were released in that time period), their brilliance spilled over onto countless EPs, singles, and collaborations that made sure the world never forgot the Hoboken trio. Coming off of the heels of all this, plus the innovative and shockingly successful The Sounds of the Sounds of Science project, expectations were reasonably high for Summer Sun.
Naturally, it disappoints, but not for the reasons you might think. The material here is actually rather good, and by any other band, this album might not be getting the boot from critics that it is currently getting. But doggone it if Yo La Tengo hasn’t painted itself into a corner by being so damn creative, inspiring, and great in the last ten years—Summer Sun, while constantly very good, is never creative, inspiring or great. And sorry, guys, we’ve just come to expect better of you. It’s more of a compliment than anything else, honestly.
Summer Sun starts out up to par to previous releases. The looping opener, “Beach Party Tonight,” sets the tone for the rest of the album the way “Big Day Coming” did for Painful—low-key, soothing, and actually quite charming. Backward guitars glide over a gentle trumpet, xylophones, and a sea of coo-ing from Georgia, Ira and James, occasionally chanting “come over.” After such a lullaby, the transition into the rocking “Little Eyes” is stunning, and the song quickly reveals itself to be a highlight, with Georgia’s trademark hushed croon and propulsive drumming, Ira’s warped (albeit distortionless) guitar and James’s catchy bass. It’s Yo La Tengo in high gear, and it’s a wonderful thing.
“Nothing But You and Me” is the first sign that something isn’t right. Like much of ...And Then Nothing Turned Itself Out, the band’s previous album, it’s an Ira-sung ballad of the difficulty of love, but it lacks all of the insight and wit that peppered those songs and made them so distinctive. As Ira pleads “won’t you please come back to me?” and “won’t you give me just one more chance?” it sounds more like he’s covering an old jazz standard than writing the heart-rending lyrics about love that he’s spent the last ten years proving to us he’s capable of writing. The song covers up the deficiency in the lyrics rather well, however, by marking a new direction for the band, a sort of jazzy sound over looped beats, which comes back later in the album on the even more successful “Don’t Have to Be So Sad.”
No such luck, however, for “Season of the Shark,” the album’s first real clunker. The song is truly nauseating, sounding like Belle and Sebastian doing bossa nova, except even cuter. When it comes to that chorus, “could it be that it’s the season of the shark?” you really have to wonder if Yo La Tengo is taking the title of the album just a bit too seriously. This sort of sickeningly sweet drivel appears later in the album in the form of the Bacharach-ian “How to Make a Baby Elephant Float” and towards the end in “Moonrock Mambo.” For a band that has gone over ten years without a single song that be construed as filler, with even their most outlandish genre experiments making sense in context of the album, these songs are devastatingly insubstantial, something I never thought I’d have to say about Yo La Tengo.
It’s not all that dire, to be fair. Georgia, having to play second fiddle to Ira increasingly less with each successive YLT album, proves to be the real saving grace here, with her “Today is the Day,” “Winter A-Go-Go” and “Take Care” far outshining any of her husband’s contributions. “Take Care” is especially beautiful, the latest in a long line of excellent interpretations from a band commonly referred to as the greatest cover band in the world. This time they take on the finale to Big Star’s shambling masterwork Third/Sister Lovers, playing it as a country torch song of sorts, giving the cover a lovely resonance that none of their own songs were able to accomplish this time around. “This sounds a bit like goodbye/in a way it is, I guess,” Georgia sings, and you get the feeling that maybe it’s time for Yo La Tengo to hang up their spurs.
Nah. I’m not ready to throw in the towel on the band yet. For all its flaws, Summer Sun very much sounds like the kind of album Yo La Tengo wanted to make, a muted soundtrack to a middle-aged summer. Unfortunately, it just wasn’t a very good idea. But it’s not enough of a travesty that their previously spotless track record doesn’t excuse it, and I’m still expecting years of boundless ingenuity from the band before they’re through.
Let’s just be less still next time, guys.