April 17, 2003

Fun In the Sun

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Albums, and most art for that matter, seem to succeed or fail in a critical sense based on conformation or deviation from the audiences’ anticipations. The art that is most successful in terms of the sheer response it garners is that which defies all expectations. These are those “love it or hate it” pieces of art: the Pollock, the Lynch, the John Cage. Critics are thrilled into praise by bands consistently evolving by leaps rather than gradients. But where does that leave a band like Yo La Tengo? Often seen as critics’ darlings themselves, YLT are now met, for the first time in years, with mediocre reviews of their latest LP, Summer Sun.

The problem? Well, it appears that critics simply can’t handle a band that meets their expectations, even if those expectations are as high as they are for a seminal band like the Tengo. It’s uncertain whether people would have preferred that Ira, Georgia, and James all put a “The” before their band name and start stealing riffs from The Stooges, but it is clear that this is a trio that evolves the way evolution is meant to happen — with small and deliberate, but no less innovative, steps. Since their inception in the late ’80s, YLT have gradually incorporated an increasing amount of their diverse influences with every album (guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan was, after all, a music journalist at one time). From the Velvet Underground (the band they portrayed in I Shot Andy Warhol) to the Kinks (one of the many bands they covered on Fakebook), YLT have tossed more and more into the mix without fans quite catching all the references. 2000’s And then nothing turned itself inside-out did surprise some people with its somewhat uncharacteristic calm, but there were signs of this move evident in the band’s more eclectic I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One. Basically, YLT is circling its niche like a dog settling in its comfortable spot — not fixing what isn’t broken, but still throwing in consistently stunning additions to their sound.

Summer Sun makes a great deal of sense following And then nothing