The editors here at Prefix Magazine were kind enough to send me the newest Yo La Tengo album, Summer Sun, which I had requested. They only asked that I review it; it wasn’t like they asked me to bear its children. Sounds like a simple enough thing to do, right?
Yo La Tengo is regarded by many in the “indie” community as a chosen prophet for the genre. And rightly so. Esoteric, intelligent, offbeat, never widely embraced by the mainstream, Yo La Tengo has all the qualities of a record geek’s wet dream. The band has been responsible for some of the greatest music of the 1990s, but by this point someone has to ask the question: Is Summer Sun, getting rave reviews simply because it’s Yo La Tengo or because the music is genuinely that good?
The answer, my friends, is blowing in the wind.
After seventeen years of constant evolution, experimentation with sounds and moods and restless independence, has Yo La Tengo’s well of creative energy run dry? Summer Sun is a logical extension of the group’s (brilliant) prior release, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, but it lacks bite. The band has dropped the dissonant post-rock noise it once embraced in favor of whispered vocals and restrained arrangements of soft guitars, hushed drums and muted tones. In fact, it’s a sleepy listen. Summer Sun is ambient, atmospheric, reflective — inoffensive enough to be played at a Starbucks, yet apparently inventive enough to get four stars in Rolling Stone. Woo hoo. That and a buck fifty gets you a ride on Chicago’s transit system. I don’t know which is the better value.
Clearly, the musicians of Yo La Tengo are studied, intelligent connoisseurs of the Pet Sounds-era and post-rock canons: Summer Sun is, at times, an exercise in droning soundscapes; at other times, it’s a lullaby for the comatose. This arduous drone works best on songs such as “Beach Party Tonight,” the album’s opening track, but it doesn’t make for an engaging listen when the band drags itself into the 10-minute-plus jam of “Let’s Be Still,” a song that makes me wonder whether Yo La Tengo is nursing secret jam-band ambitions.
Ultimately, Summer Sun is not a bad record. But at best, it’s a mediocre record. My advice to Yo La Tengo is to drop the pretension, go back to what made the band great in the first place and leave the quieter-than-quiet to Sigur Ros.