w/the CleanFri June 13, Showbox, 8 pm, $15 adv/$17 dos.
Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is to be sung.--Voltaire
Gonna take a nitcomb to get rid of me/'Cause I just realized that it was meant to be.--Joe Strummer, "Nitcomb"
Writing a love song can be a loaded endeavor: Say something sweet and private and you'll forever be included in the songs-to-seduce-by arsenal of the CD-burning shut-ins. Say something sweet and stupid and lovers of carnations-on-your-birthday-buyin' partners will reassure themselves it's worth the heartache by thinking, "Well, things could be worse."
While it's unimaginable that Yo La Tengo could pen any song whose lyrics would be considered stupid, penning an entire album of love songs is a risk for any band, even the mighty trio from Hoboken. But their latest release, Summer Sun, is just such an album, chock full of love songs nearly naked in gossamer instrumentation and no detectable irony. "It's really funny how these things, these albums go," says bassist/co-songwriter James McNew as the band's van continues its jaunt, in daily increments, from East Coast to West. "Love songs, or albums about love in general, seem like they require a tremendous amount of distance and perspective once they're finished. Now that it's out I'm really enjoying the interpretations and hearing what people say about these songs. And making people say things like you just said to me [I had told him the songs on Summer Sun make me want to go back in time, for just a bit, so I can pay better attention to the moments I hold dear now but didn't when they originated], then I feel like we've said something. We've accomplished something with this record."
I'm not here to compare Summer Sun to any Yo La Tengo album that has come before it. Countless critics will no doubt feel compelled to do so and I leave the task to them gladly. I'm more interested in the story this album tells, who's thinking what and who can't forget about whom. I assume the bulk of the songs are about guitarist Ira Kaplan and drummer Georgia Hubley's relationship, and McNew's contributions are equally sentimental, and seem to come from the same wistful inspiration. I'll say right now it's Hubley's song "Today Is the Day" that's my favorite--guitar, bass, keyboards, and Hubley's resonant alto explore the point where ruminating over a lost love becomes an obsession rather than just the occasional healthy recollection. After following an ex-lover to a club and then sitting in a car waiting for him to come out--he doesn't--she sings, "I was going to spend the night/Could've been okay/We were going to talk all night/Till I went away," before, "I'm taking my time, trailing behind/a thought of you," comes along so affectionately--were it not for the creepy tone of the rest of the lyrics.
My mom loved to play to Rod McKuen's Listen to the Warm, so I can tell quite quickly (and not without taking pause to flip through my own photo book of the mind) that Kaplan's aping the gravelly voiced poet/singer at points in "Don't Have to Be So Sad," but that doesn't lessen the earnestness of him singing, "If you're looking at me/I'll try to be what you want to see," over the quietest of horn strains. The horns rise forcefully to an almost orchestral level in "Let's Be Still," with flutes becoming discordant against distorted vocals singing a dreamy song about wanting to stop time: "Let's be still, be still for a while/There's no place I wanna be/Lose our way and sit side by side/Passing our time so carelessly, so carelessly." By far it is the album's most sweepingly picturesque and moving tune before Summer Sun is ridden out by Big Star's "Take Care," which Hubley turns into an aching, pedal-steel-soaked farewell to those who need to be reminded to look after themselves when no one is there to look for them, or at them.
Writing and recording such an unabashedly romantic album is one thing, but singing the songs on tour may piss off Yo La Tengo fans who are expecting the band's frenzied, less dulcet incarnation. So far, so good, says McNew. "We've been traveling for a couple of weeks now and putting together a set list. The music's existed only in my own head for months and I think I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed these songs."
More than any other track on Summer Sun, though, "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float" finds the songwriters offering the timid or bumbling listener advice on how to write a song to the object of his or her desires. "If you want to be a romantic fool/You don't have to say I love you/Just say what's in your heart/Non sequitur or not/And without even trying/Find your punch line."
So what if it comes out like a line out of Joe Strummer's "Nitcomb"? Things could be worse.