Three years after 2000's brilliant And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, Yo La Tengo returns with Summer Sun, an album that's as settled and smooth as the previous one was inventive and eclectic. Musically, Summer Sun continues the band's progression away from intricate, guitar-based pop both loud and soft and toward an arguably more sophisticated sound. This move resulted in masterpieces like I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, which balanced their roots and their ambitions perfectly; on Summer Sun, it feels a little bit like a retreat. This time around, the post-rock, Krautrock, and jazz influences the band introduced on I Can Hear the Heart and perfected on And Then Nothing dominate Summer Sun, giving it a hushed, polished feel. Sometimes, this approach works, as on the lovely opener "Beach Party Tonight," which sounds appropriately warm and full of possibilities, and "Tiny Birds," a droning, spiralling track that sounds a bit like a fusion of post-rock and Pet Sounds. However, the fusion-inspired instrumental "Georga Vs. Yo La Tengo" and the jammy, ten-minute "Let's Be Still" veer dangerously close to noodling and bloat the album's length to over an hour; unfortunately, there's not quite an hour's worth of interesting music here. Much of this is due to Summer Sun's arrangements and productions: tracks like "How to Make a Baby Elephant Float" and "Don't Have to Be So Sad" are based on lighter-than-air guitars, drums, and synths and topped with whispery vocals. Individually, their understated prettiness works well, but collectively, they're slightly too understated for their own good. When the band does get a little livelier, they deliver some memorable moments, such as the percolating "Little Eyes"; the cute, poppy "The Season of the Shark"; and "Today Is the Day," a Georgia Hubley song that's nearly as gorgeous as "Shadows" or "Nowhere Near." A little more variety in volume and tempo could've made this album great instead of pretty good; for the first time in years, Yo La Tengo doesn't break out the feedback and distortion anywhere on an album. Summer Sun is so mellow and pretty that it feels uncharitable to call it one of their weakest albums in recent memory; many bands would kill to make music this accomplished. But, even though Yo La Tengo can still run circles around other groups even when they're running in place, compared to their best work Summer Sun is merely pleasant.
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AllMusic Review by Heather Phares