Old dogs may have trouble with new tricks, but sometimes musicians have trouble sticking to the good tricks they know. Not so Yo La Tengo.
Carbon dating places the band’s origins in the mid-1980s, but sometimes it feels like they emerged from Hoboken, New Jersey, around the same time as Francis Albert Sinatra. For years, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, Yo La’s husband-and-wife core, have been tending a little plot of land in a post-Velvet Underground urban wasteland. And they’ve remained good citizens as the neighborhood gentrified around them, demonstrating a rock-solid commitment more bands should emulate.
There’s been a gradual freeing of minds going on in Yo La-land since 1997’s funky, experimental I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and on Summer Sun the band’s asses occasionally follow, as on the Meters-meets-Magnum P.I. instrumental,”Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo.” Unfortunately, the album doesn’t contain their recent, righteous cover of Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,”which–speaking of your ass–advised you to kiss it good-bye should the missiles start flying. But “Moonrock Mambo,” which uses thes ame rhythm, grooves nicely; and if you liked Barenaked Ladies’ “One Week” (car-commercial focus groups don’t lie), you’ll enjoy Kaplan’s scat raps.
Summer Sun sometimes sounds like a band treading water at low tide, but obsessively exploring the contours of a moment is what Yo La have been about from day one. That’s why this apparently summer-themed album doesn’t exactly exude fun-fun-fun. (If you’ve heard the band’s sedate cover of the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda” from a few years back, you get the idea.) But the moments when contemplation yields to compulsion still carry a charge, as when “Little Eyes” starts to sound like “little lies.” Summer Sunends with a graceful cover of Big Star’s “Take Care,” which sounds like a renewal of vows between a band that isn’t going anywhere and a fan base eager to follow.