The cover of Summer Sun depicts the members of Yo La Tengo (Georgia Hubley, James McNew and Ira Kaplan) in a blur, bundled up against a cool, wet, overcast day. It's just the kind of gentle humor and satisfying juxtaposition of darkness and light one would expect from this smart, unassuming band. It's also the perfect introduction to the aural niceties found within the album's 13 cuts.
Friends who haven't been over to Yo La Tengo's house in awhile might be taken aback by the softness and quietness here. But you who have paid attention will recall that long ago the band began a measured segue from the no wave they cut their collective teeth on to something resembling a highly idiosyncratic and intelligent stab at easy listening. Summer Sun finds the Hoboken, N.J., trio playfully creating mood music for 21st-century moderns -- with just enough uncertainty, introspection and subtle dread to keep things interesting.
The feedback -- and the noisiest guitar skronk this pop side of Sonic Youth -- that are used to define the group's sound have been almost completely replaced by drowsy atmospheres, gentle rhythms and arrangements that owe at least as much to jazz as they do to rock. The constants are Georgia and Ira's intoxicating and (at times) narcoleptic vocals and the group's occasional forays into surf and Latin.
"Little Eyes" rocks -- a little bit -- as Georgia's buttery voice melts into the warm, rumbling background sonics. "Today is the Day" wistfully exposes regret tempered with resignation against a pocket of echo-saturated slide guitar. Ira's "Moonrock Mambo" is agreeably loopy.
There are a few noticeable lulls on Summer Sun -- spaces where I find myself longing for sleepy-bye ("Nothing but You and Me" doesn't do much for me, nor does the instrumental "How To Make a Baby Elephant Float"). And overall, it lacks a certain visceral appeal: It certainly won't offend anyone in the office except maybe that guy with the Accused leathers in the cubicle next to you. But it's lovely, too, in its resolute, unapologetic sweetness (note the spiraling sax-flute lightness of "Let's Be Still"). And Georgia's rendition of Alex Chilton's "Take Care," which closes the album, is appropriately heartbreaking and haunting.
Here's hoping Yo La Tengo never tires of sending us snapshots from their little corner of the world.