Yo La Tengo maintain such a steady calm on their 12th album, Summer Sun (Matador), that to unforgiving ears they might sound comatose. Ballads are whispered and float by like leaves on a lazy river. But to me this seems like the flip side of Ira Kaplan's notorious onstage freak-outs on guitar (he bobs like a Dippy Bird toy) or cheap Ace Tone organ. There he loses himself in a deafening drone, here in quiet tranquility, but in both cases the music seems to take him outside of himself. There may not be a lot happening on the surface of Summer Sun, but undercurrents reveal the kind of focus and intuition that can come only from years of collaboration--on "Little Eyes," for example, Kaplan and Georgia Hubley blend their voices in lighter-than-air harmonies while the gently churning rhythm dances a virtual ballet with the shimmery guitar lines. The songwriting is solid and the melodies gorgeous--if the band simply cranked their amps they'd probably silence many of the doubters who interpret their gentleness as a lack of ideas. As on And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (2000), the trio is augmented by members of New York's avant-garde jazz scene (reedists Daniel Carter and Sabir Mateen, trumpeter Roy Campbell, and bassist William Parker), whose contributions are uncharacteristically restrained--they may be improvising on a tune like the lengthy and aptly named "Let's Be Still," but they're doing so within a well-defined sound world. There are a few formal anomalies--the loungey funk instrumental "Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo" and the beautiful Zombies-style "Winter A-Go-Go"--but for the most part Summer Sun is the kind of rigorously peaceful reflection that can work wonders if you just surrender. The Clean open (see Spot Check). Saturday, June 7, 7:30 PM, the Vic, 3145 N. Sheffield; 773-472-0449 or 312-559-1212.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/James Crump.