Saturday, March 28, 2020

Yo La Tengo: Summer Sun (2003)


(Matador)

!!! A+ RECORDING !!!

The months that passed between the seismic jolt of 9/11 and the dawn of the futile, deadly Iraq War felt impossibly cold and lonely. Say what you will about the way that society has fragmented in the era of social media, but one undeniable benefit of it is that very few of us are forced to feel wholly isolated by our dread and distrust at the direction of the world. Despite the fact that the war George W. Bush and his criminal cohorts from Dick Cheney to Joe Biden voted for and/or manufactured says more about American destiny and more about the dire state of our democracy, with consequences that have rippled down longer and more persistently in the last seventeen years, 9/11 was a unique moment -- as the current COVID-19 pandemic will also prove to be -- in the sense that it was unignorable, and seemed to cast everything else in our lives in "before" and "after" terms. What made the period so desperately sad and still, I believe, the darkest that many of us have lived through is that it quickly became clear that terrorism was being made to function as an excuse, as a way of furthering agendas that right-wing zealots had been longing to institute, with very little opposition. The scenario was created in which there was only a binary of "with" or "against" America; communication, even with loved ones, became impossible.

And it was merely setting the table for the fragmentation and misery that has continued ever since, as the moral universe shifted and the darkness of the fascist underbelly of American capitalism came out into the clear daylight; I would never argue that things are materially better except in the sense that waking up every day feeling endlessly disgusted and like you're going insane no longer makes you a pariah. Still, anyone who lived through that first year will undoubtedly recall how traumatic and colorless it all was, the pandering of institutions still determined to fire up consumerism, the Barney and Friends-like coddling of ugly, empty sentimentality. Culturally it felt like the end of so many things that had made life interesting, and not as a result of the attacks themselves but as a result of the jingoistic, racist response to them and the way they were parlayed into a blank check for warmongering. For all the empty chatter about being there for one another, the spirit of community, joy and rebellion that once was rock & roll abruptly fell away. If you were just entering adulthood at the time, certainly if it happened simultaneously with illness and estrangement from family, it felt like you had become untethered from everything familiar -- and all the while, you were forced into hearing the empty pablum of P.O.D., Toby Keith and Enya endlessly repeated. It was the death of love, the death of art, the death of critical thinking, the death of introspection.

***

By the end of 2002 New Jersey's Yo La Tengo were not quite an institution yet despite having been performing for nearly twenty years. They had carved out a comfortable existence as a cult act well away from the mainstream and operated unmistakably on their own terms, but articles about them were not yet suffused with dewy-eyed prattling about how they were "elder statesmen." Indeed, their lineup had only been stabilized with the addition of bassist James McNew for a decade. Nevertheless fortune seemed to be smiling on them; their last two records, issued in 1997 and 2000, had warranted highly visible praise in major outlets and sold briskly at a time when indie rock still operated within its own shadow economy. 2001 had brought their first eight-night Hanukkah showcase at Maxwell's in Hoboken, a soon-to-be legendary tradition in which the band and various guests performed a full residency on all eight nights of the holiday, plumbing the depths of a catalog that could handle it. The stage was being set for a world in which Yo La Tengo were unquestioned as community leaders of their own parallel conglomeration of music makers and fans, but it was not yet a given that they deserved a default sense of reverence and respect.

There was still some derision of them as a "critics' band" or a band whose work spoke stricly to impassioned record collectors. Perhaps there still is now, but the flowering of the internet has allowed a more nuanced sense of their character and creativity to dominate the discourse about them; there will always be people who absolutely will be incapable of understanding what Yo La Tengo is about and what they're actually doing (broadly: whatever they want), or people who simply refuse to understand it. The difference in the early 2000s was that Yo La Tengo still had no choice but to coexist within a "college music" landscape whose face had changed radically from the years when they were opening for the Sundays and My Bloody Valentine and sharing a label with indie breakthroughs Pavement and Liz Phair. The immediate post-9/11 period of alternative rock was dominated by the effervescent, often transcendent expressions of shouted youthful bliss emanating from the New York clubs; and, domestically and internationally, self-impressed parodies of new wave derived from the emptily snide works of groups like the Faint, eventually to be parodied by mainstream radio in the Killers era. The radio was a hellscape of the confused aftermath of third-generation bubblegum grunge and faux-punk. Yo La Tengo fit into none of these arbitrary universes, a fatal condition in a moment when "scenes" all of a sudden seemed to mean everything again. Into this environment the band launched a record that perplexed certain members of their own audience and much, if not most, of the larger indie rock sphere; it was dubbed Summer Sun, a title some interpreted as ironic given the laconic and melancholy nature of the music but that in various other ways seems perfectly accurate to its sullen, stormy mood.

Georgia Hubley's mother Faith, the brilliant filmmaker, animator and editor, died a few days before the first run of Yo La Tengo Hanukkah gigs. In Hubley's own memory, her mother's loss lingers over Summer Sun; Ira Kaplan, her husband and bandmate, would eventually classify the record as one about "coping," presumably with personal as well as worldly losses. In advance of the record's release came a 12" single comprised of four acerbic versions of Sun Ra's absolutely brutal Reagan-era free-jazz anthem "Nuclear War"; reviews interpreted it as a coy joke and failed to discern the anger and pain that drove the project, which serves even now as a searing piece of righteous pop art, kicking against the invisible sources of our collective misery. The world suddenly seemed to be moving at warp speed. Yo La Tengo recorded the album that followed in Nashville with Roger Moutenot, returned to Hoboken to play a second year of Hanukkah shows (this time with such illustrious guests as David Byrne, Ray Davies and, unforgettably, Ronnie Spector), then went back to Nashville to mix the album for an atypically rushed release. Kaplan would cite this as a stressful time for the band, but none of the strain is evident in the music. Rather than a work of art that succumbs to grief, which wouldn't necessarily be abhorrent or inappropriate, it is a record that intimately courts, engages and forges a complex interplay with love and loss, an island of beauty and sane relief in a hungover, unsafe environment. It could have come into existence at no other time, but its utility as an embrace of unforced feeling has not been distorted by the myriad ways the world has changed since that specific moment.

And how does that manifest musically? Generously, to say the least. This is an album that, to ears trained by a certain kind of pop music, nearly overflows with secrets and pleasures. Running along simultaneously with the layering and intricate quiet of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out as well as the flirtation with electronics from the I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One-Sounds of the Sounds of Science-Danelectro era, Yo La Tengo here present themselves as the nearly exclusive grownup inheritors of Phil Spector's ideas about detailed, overwhelming sheets of sound as a tool of soulful expression. In its impeccable combination of pop thrills and morose moodiness, Summer Sun evokes a willfully closed-off world and the discovery of an introspective universe opening up, like putting your head underwater and finding everything renewed. If it is indeed a cathartic moment of coping, it's as profound as they come. The comfort and kindness it captures were evident in the first track the band chose to release near the beginning of 2003, "Don't Have to Be So Sad," which superficially resembles some of the whispered confessionals of the last album. A closer listen, however, reveals the breadth and variance of a full-fledged soundscape that would have been hard to imagine when Yo La Tengo were still lumped in with the shoegazers barely ten years before this. It's still identifiably them -- piano, drum machines, keyboards all put across the unmistakable cadence of their irresistibly poetic melodies and riffs heretofore typically confined to guitars-bass-drums (and feedback) -- but doubles down on mood in a fashion that's initially off-putting and finally breathtaking; and the moment when Kaplan takes the microphone at last with a husky, almost desperate-sounding "you and me," feels like the culmination of every second in his life, their life, our lives, all of which could be pared down to that one simple phrase even though it's just the beginning of a sentence about a goldfish pond. Frankly, if Ira Kaplan's recorded legacy was the way he emits those three words, he'd deserve to be as important to rock & roll as the Edison kiss is to cinema.

The second song released on the band's website, as well as to the scattered radio stations still willing to pay attention to Yo La Tengo at this stage, was "Little Eyes," an even more densely-layered creation that came off like an electrical storm heard from under water, with Hubley's propulsive drums matched in urgency by one of her clearest vocals to date. Despite the way it sounded like something as otherworldly and mysterious as the Rite of Spring sequence Hubley's father John animated for Disney sixty-three years earlier -- Kaplan's squalls of guitar noise sounding like animal cries, the band careening through an impossible night -- in terms of melody and lyric, comfort and kindness continued to reign here. In what would eventually appear to be a theme of the album, Hubley sings to console, to encourage a reawakening. The words -- which sound like they were probably Kaplan's, though this is hard to verify -- are vague but telling, and via Hubley prop the song up with their warmth. A couple of tracks later, on "Today Is the Day," Hubley returns in an more reflective tone, singing words (almost certainly hers, but again, this is impossible to know for sure) that are simultaneously even more mysterious and even more inescapably personal. On this song, the equally elaborate soundscape is slower, more mournful, the desolate guitar hook at its center providing what feels almost like a bodily lift from the haze around it. She sings about specific events that seem to fade into the ether even as she recounts them. The details -- a rusty car, a sister accepting blame, being too old to stay up late -- are well enough established that the dots connecting them aren't needed to establish their importance. They grow more distant each time you hear the song again, and she seems more unsure about them; it's a song that could have been formed only by some kind of indescribable love, but the starkness of its sense of loss, however maturely expressed, only ever grows more evident; and in a way, it seems surprising that a person so private and guarded would allow us to hear it. (Nowadays she is, perhaps understandably, reluctant to sing it live.)

Yet if "Today Is the Day" is -- at least in this version -- perhaps the saddest song in Yo La Tengo's catalog, it's also one that feels so open and inviting that its shimmering regret is irresistible, a haunted night one cannot stay away from, maybe because it sounds like a memory narrated from a very different present. When Kaplan conquers depression directly on "Season of the Shark," the title referring to a wave of national news stories about shark attacks from just before 9/11, it is to chide and cheer with inspirational advice ("I know it's hard, I know that it's that way for everyone") while also offering a shoulder and support so sincerely that his once wildly out of character openness (compare the mildly smarmy Ira of vintage YLT ballads like "Lewis" and "Something to Do," always ready with a kick-in-the-ass barb after an expression of feeling) could move you to tears when you realize how deep it runs, and how perfectly modulated his vocal delivery of it is. (It's not the first Kaplan vocal this effortlessly tender. In particular the Fakebook version of "Did I Tell You" qualifies, but that's an example of him looking inward, not dispensing a direct plea of encouragement as he does here. Perhaps the best analogy is the band's 1997 version of "By the Time It Gets Dark," which of course they didn't write.) The simplicity of the song as a composition and a recording, particularly on an album rife with elaborate sonic tricks, only furthers the sensation that it's a kind of pulling back of the curtain.

It's James McNew, however, who comes in with the unexpected money shot on his second lead vocal on a Yo La Tengo album, the song that ties all of the instincts that seem to be driving Summer Sun together into one elegant, awe-inspiring piece of pop mastery. Of the many things "Tiny Birds" has to offer in its lush, intimate contract with its listener, the confidence and perfection of McNew's delivery of its closing line -- "till there's nothing left in the world to make you cry" -- is perhaps its greatest gift. The song's sheer sound, however, and the forceful fantasia of its composition, provide a sort of Rosetta stone to what makes Summer Sun such an impressive work and one that stands so far apart from the rest of Yo La Tengo's genuinely thrilling catalog. With nothing more than the traditional three-person lineup, the group manages to evoke the room-sized complexity of the Wrecking Crew and their work on the baroque Pet Sounds-era Beach Boys records, one reason the album's title may not be so ironic despite the mood. Instruments run together to create new instruments, and recordings seem beholden less to conventional rock or pop form than to the emotional state they seek to capture; it is a whole world of sound harnessed to emotion so pure you could call it emphatically teenaged if it weren't basically universal. And its many interlocking pieces all are separately engaging but coalesce beautifully into a whole, fusing into a song as delightful in its sadness as in its earnest joy at the act of creation. There was nothing quite like this on And Then Nothing, which had plenty of layers but was comparatively built on ideas cascading incidentally; every second and element of "Tiny Birds" feels deliberate and properly tweaked, and this largely extends to Summer Sun as a whole, which is why it still sounds different than any other Yo La Tengo album.

That's even true of the opener "Beach Party Tonight," a recording so vague it fails to assert its shape even after hundreds of listens, despite which it manages to set the mood effectively. Its fullness of environment is no less pronounced than on the immersive "Today Is the Day" or the lovely ten-minute lounge-jazz showpiece "Let's Be Still" which uses Other Dimensions in Music to fill out its mondo space-pop credentials. (This song more than any other seemed to particularly infuriate the album's detractors, evidently who never chilled out to retro bachelor pad elevator music and therefore cannot verify that in the right moment it sounds wonderful, or perhaps unabashed "beauty" was simply too uncool.) The band's instrumentation and experimentation are complemented by the addition of a piano (Faith Hubley's) that springs up everywhere but particularly drives the instrumental "Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo" and the disorienting, uniquely fussy and pop culture reference-heavy "Moonrock Mambo," materially changing their sound and providing an impetus for both fun and pathos heretofore unexamined. The drum machines and keyboards aren't so new; as noted, flirtation with electronics had begun to take hold around the time of "Moby Octopad" and the Autumn Sweater EP with its freeform remixes, but never before had they added up to the foreboding peculiarity of "Nothing But You and Me" (maybe the first song the band did not even attempt to duplicate on stage, instead singing lightheartedly along to a tape recorded backing track) or to the indescribable sweetness and sensuality of the extended ancedote "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float." And the band's organ had been a fixture as long as McNew, even inspiring a song title in 1993, but was never so gainfully employed as on the "We Can Work It Out"-meets-"96 Tears" gem "Winter-a-Go-Go," another contradictory seasonal number with a breathtaking Georgia vocal and a splendidly thorny arrangement that generates spy movie dreams at the same time that it suggests something warmer and more tangibly longing in its lyric and vocal.

Viewed in terms of sheer songcraft, this is an impossibly high level of material; given that it's almost by definition an album about vibes and mood, that feels almost like an embarrassment of riches -- it never hurt Painful that it wasn't filled with Supremes-like hooks -- but it allows the record to become almost impossible to wear out, because not only are its sounds and sonic caverns a source of endless fascination, the songs themselves are as durable and pleasurable as the highest level of AM radio Brill Building pop music. Even among Yo La Tengo's gaggle of great records, there isn't another one -- at least, not one that isn't composed mostly of covers -- that generates so much simple pleasure out of mere composition. Coming on the heels of a record that had been built on songs designed to sound like intimate confessionals, the lyrics on Summer Sun frequently boast a directness that coincides well with the immediacy of style; they'd arguably never been as straightforward again as they are on "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float," about inside jokes, and "Don't Have to Be So Sad," about cheering up a depressed lover. Ira Kaplan admitted feeling like the spotlight was on their words a little more directly than usual, with pressure mounting for the first and only time as they committed to a follow-up to a distinctively successful and singular record in their catalog, and you can detect a slight self-consciousness in those songs, the accusation being that they are attempts to evoke the effortlessly naked mood of "Our Way to Fall" and "The Crying of Lot G," but less so in songs like "Today Is the Day," "Season of the Shark" and "Tiny Birds" which are no less comforting in their gentle kindness.

As always, though, Yo La Tengo's real bid is to exist out of time, away from the context of what they'd been up to three years earlier, and they find waltzing transcendence in the end, with their achingly poignant country-rock cover of Big Star's "Take Care," sung by Georgia, fitting in both its mournfully begrudging hopefulness and its stark survey of an abandoned destiny. Covering one of the saddest songs by the writer of "Back of a Car," the singer of "The Letter" matches well with the conflicted use of "summer" as a linchpin. Like Brian Wilson, Alex Chilton celebrated community and isolation in equal measure in his music; both were haunted and preoccupied by the experiences and disappointments of adolescence in a way that Yo La Tengo are not, or at least haven't been since the 1980s ("A Shy Dog," "Crispy Duck"). But the associations of joy and despair they reckon with in the music that influences them here presumably come about because of the way that depression and grief reignite the oversized feelings of those times: the intensity of longing to connect and the intensity of isolation, both concerns that almost wholly populate this collection of songs as never before. This sense of focus both musical and lyrical is hard to miss, and impressive; it's also very much not in the typical vein of Yo La Tengo.

Summer Sun was the first Yo La Tengo album since 1992's under-distributed May I Sing with Me not to be met with uniform accolades on release; moreover, it was received as a mediocre entry in their catalog or, at best, a mixed success by nearly every then-major outlet from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone to the briefly influential All Music Guide. Perhaps more damning was that fans seemed equally disappointed with it. (Yo La Tengo acolytes have never been particularly well organized but there were a few active fan webpages at this stage.) What the band and the album's advocates heard as an impressive leap forward in crafting a cohesive, immersive set that served equally well as a mood album and as perhaps their most consistently masterful set of songs to date was instead derided for an absence of change-of-pace moments like the screaming rocker "Cherry Chapstick" from the prior album; the record was criticized both for lacking guitar music and for leaning on influences that were at the time considered out of vogue, not so much the Beach Boys and Phil Spector (although other bands like Beulah had been ignored for similar reasons) as easy listening, lounge-jazz, Jack Nitzsche. Always celebrated for being restless and unpredictable, Yo La Tengo now found the chickens coming home to roost because they weren't being unpredictable in exactly the "correct" way to appease the hip contingent. The frustrating conclusion one had to draw was that indie heads were as fussy and limited in their musical imaginations as the populists in the mainstream ClearChannel galaxy they so loved to deride; indie sincerity would prove all right as long as it had the bombast of Canada's soon-to-be-exploding Arcade Fire, but catch yourself flaunting the endless pleasures of an immaculately produced 45 and you were yesterday's news.

In fact, the band had deliberately chosen to design this album differently -- they recorded more fast songs than they had for the last LP, but ultimately chose to lop all three of them off for an EP release later in 2003 (the excellent Today Is the Day). Two, "Styles of the Times" and "Outsmartener," were boisterous, blistering rockers. The other, "Today Is the Day" in its original incarnation, had more of a "Barnaby, Hardly Working" amped-up ballad eneergy, so it was slowed down and rerecorded for the album to create consistency of sound and mood, an album in the classic sense. Kaplan remembered: "We made a decision at the last second just to leave the loud songs off. We were looking at the material we recorded and just trying to put out the best record that we could. At a certain point, we just thought it seemed right to put out the quiet ones. I've been aware that there's been some surprise about that and people saying it's even quieter than the last record, which has sort of taken me by surprise." The precarious situation for indie rock at the time meant that poor reviews would directly affect sales; the lack of hype around the record clearly hurt it, and sadly Yo La Tengo took it to heart at least in the sense that with a couple of exceptions, most of its songs have not made regular setlist appearances since the tour supporting it in 2003 and 2004. Ironically, the band would eventually return to the notion of recording full albums of pleasingly quiet music and would seemingly have far less trouble selling it, because by the time of Fade and There's a Riot Going On they would indeed be Elder Statesmen, their shows populated by fans ready to be hypnotized by whatever the band deigned to serve them, not the scene kids who wouldn't shut up during the colorfully moody, whisper-delicate shows at the 40 Watt Club in Athens and the Orange Peel in Asheville in 2003.

What all this points to is the sheer radicalism of the existence Yo La Tengo have carved out as a band. Being a fan of alternative rock you're surely familiar with the seen-it-all hanger-on who walks in any room with any band playing and has his entire existence validated by the idea that he has figured it all out within seconds: the aesthetic, the pallette of influences, the image being propagated. Yo La Tengo has been plagued almost from the beginning with a whole world reciting the "oh, I get it" chorus, despite the fact that you almost certainly don't get it, "it" being the fact that music itself is such a lifeblood to these three that it has to encompass every aspect of who they are, and truly understanding them requires you to take the leap of accepting that they do not sound like one given thing or fall under one given category, but that the conglomeration of ideas, influences and impulses becomes the sound. There is a strange need among critics and casual fans to box the band in as "cute," almost an emotional stunting of them by their audience. You see it constantly with the dismissal of the anger in some of their (especially Kaplan's) singing and performing, the unwillingness to permit not just their occasional fury but their humor as well. But these myriad emotional dimensions allow them to seem to some of us like people we almost know; the vulnerability they thereby expose (they really do tell us quite a lot about themselves, including within the silence of what they don't say) creates a given-and-take that is so fragile and so valuable. And Summer Sun feels like a check-in from them to us -- to see if we're all right -- and an important one, and one that richly deserved to be received on that basis rather than whined about because there wasn't a "Sugarcube" on it. It comes from a moment when everything was basically ruined, and you couldn't seem to escape the fear of your own part in ruining it, and to hear its out-of-time seasonal symphonies to life going on somehow didn't necessarily tell you things were going to be OK -- because they weren't -- but it did remind you that there was some kind of warmth still existing somehow out there in amidst all the confusion.

***

To get briefly personal, Summer Sun has been a constant in my life since its release in April 2003, when I was still getting used to being a directionless adult, working a food services job and spending almost all my free time obsessing over '60s pop music, and I have to confess that I was more bothered by its critical reception than I have been by that of any other record whose actual publicity cycle I was awake for. Like so much that was going on in 2003, it really did feel on a daily basis like I was going insane as I grew further and further into the nooks and crannies of the record and felt more and more propped up by it, and as the reviews and comments continued to roll in, nearly all of them incomprehensible to me. It certainly put me off staying on top of the world of indie music commentary for a decent while. I first saw the band live that September in Asheville, and was bewildered by the yawning reception they received. Validation finally came when Robert Christgau awarded it an A, but he talked little about the music in his long analysis of Ira and Georgia as people. But perhaps the essence of this record, which is still one of the best of the century, is that its basic communicative power to me -- coming on the heels of another album that had been so vital to me at an equally turbulent time -- can't really be reduced or explicated by other people's experiences of it. I hope I've captured here even a touch of how good it's made me feel through the last seventeen years.