The Subtle Evolution Of Yo La Tengo
The last time visitors were allowed to enter the little village of Yo La Tengo, they were given a 10 p.m. tour of the town whose gentle streets are lined with dogwood trees and American Beauty roses. The tour was well received, likely because it offered a respite from the bright lights of the gentrified city and the narcissistic hysteria of the passionless suburbs. It was a chance to take in the stars scattered above and scenes of domestic life lived by those who continue to cherish intimacy and its handmaiden, humor.
The soundtrack for that visit was the Hoboken band's 2000 album, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. The album, which captured the band playing in softer tones and creating a musical space more reminiscent of avant-garde jazz, sounded different from any of the band's previous 11 albums. Of course, that was not particularly surprising. Since 1986, when the band released its debut, Ride the Tiger, each album has largely turned away from the sound of its predecessor.
And so for the band's legion of fans, the trio's new full-length, Summer Sun, will be a surprise precisely because it does not break with And Then Nothing.... Instead, it infuses the sounds of that nighttime album with a July beach sound that is fit for sundown bonfires but not for Surfin' U.S.A. The continuity between the albums, though, turns out to be another case of the band breaking with the past, at least according to Ira Kaplan, band songwriter and guitarist, on the phone from a friend's house in Northampton, Mass., the morning after the band's show there in April.
"We could have put songs onto the album that would have made it sound different than the last one, but we knew we had never made two records that sounded so much alike," he said. "We thought, wouldn't that, in essence, be a change for us, not to change? It became an intriguing direction to try and make a stronger link."
That decision meant the band left off the album two rock-oriented songs as well as the louder version of the album's "Today's the Day," which Kaplan expects will appear on an EP.
Bassist James McNew, though, sees the album as a continuation of the band's progression. "The way we work is we don't set out a plan for any of these records," he said during a March phone interview. "We just let it come to us. It is like starting over from scratch each time, but all these records are related. They each seem like a pretty natural outcome of previous ideas, previous records. We take those elements that might have been more buried and expound on them."
Yo La Tengo wrote the songs that appear on Summer Sun last summer and began recording in September in Nashville with its long-time producer Roger Moutenot, who lives there. "We realized we liked going away to make a record," McNew said. "It's easier to focus, and when we're not working, we have a lot of friends there," including the members of Lampchop, who provide the band room and board.
Yo La Tengo recently finished touring for several weeks, primarily on the East Coast, and will play 11 shows in the Midwest and on the West Coast in June, with New Zealand post-punk legends The Clean as the opening act.
Last year, while waiting for a new album, Yo La Tengo fans were treated to two releases from the band. First came The Sounds of the Sounds of Science, a set of nine pieces they wrote and performed as soundtracks for the underwater documentaries and shorts of French filmmaker Jean Painleve. The track listings offer a good feel for the music: "Sea Urchins" and "How Some Jellyfish Are Born."
In November, Matador released an EP containing three versions of "Nuclear War," avant-garde jazz man Sun Ra's 1982 space-funk ode to the possibilities of nuclear annihilation with its direct refrain: "Nuclear War, they're talking about Nuclear War/ It's a motherfucker, don't you know/ If they push that button, your ass gotta go/ And whatcha gonna do without your ass."
The band members are all long-time Sun Ra fans, but they began playing the song at the band's shows on the eight nights of Hanukkah months after the Sept. 11th attacks because "it seemed inescapable not to try to address what had happened," Kaplan said.
Following subsequent invasion of Iraq, he added, the song feels just as relevant. "The political debate in this country is anything but serious, and I think this song works because it uses humor to prove its point," Kaplan said. "I don't see how anyone can argue that we had no choice [but to go to war]. I just think [that attitude of disbelief] is profoundly expressed in the song."
All in all, Kaplan sees the band's musical choices as a sign of its increasing brazenness, which, he admits, is "backwards" from the progression of most groups. "Young bands normally start out snotty, but I don't think we were particularly snotty," he said. "There was a lot of tentativeness to the band when we started. As quiet as the songs are on the record, we do a lot of other things more musically than we used to. I think we feel more confident in ourselves and each other." Andrew Gold [Monday, May 12, 2003]