“I wouldn’t say relaxation is the state I achieve most easily,” Yo La Tengo’s Ira Kaplan says with deadpan directness.
How much, then, does music help?
“It can get me there,” the guitarist/vocalist allows, almost grudgingly.
If Kaplan isn’t the personification of mellow, you wouldn’t know it from the way he talks. His subdued, lagging tone seems … well, rather relaxed.
Which is fitting enough.
Conversing with Kaplan mirrors the sensation of listening to the Hoboken, N.J., trio’s 11th and most recent full-length album, last year’s Summer Sun (Matador).
It’s very easy to take the album’s dreamy etherea at face value, getting carried away by Yo La Tengo’s gentle, lilting delivery. The songs flow prettily — they’re easily digested morsels for the ears.
But not far beneath the surface broods a wealth of restrained tension and melancholy. In fact, the title Summer Sun is, if not directly ironic, at least ambiguous.
The cover artwork is a blurry outdoor shot of the band — Kaplan, wife Georgia Hubley (drums, vocals) and James McNew (bass) — dressed in winter coats under a gray sky. The image fits the music: As the album unfolds, a kind of twilight sensation abounds; Summer Sun is painted with autumnal moods.
So … what gives?
Kaplan isn’t telling.
“One thing that I like about the title is that you have to ask that question, and I’d rather let other people think about it,” he offers. “But basically, I was looking at lyrics that we had written. All three of us were submitting lyrics that all were pointedly seasonal.
“It just seemed, at a certain point, [that] we were going to have to start changing some of the lyrics or underline that aspect. Either direction, I thought, would have been OK; but just to kind of have it there … the middle ground didn’t seem as good an idea, so we decided to underline it.
“Summer Sun,” he reveals, “wasn’t actually the first title we had. But it was the one that stuck.”
Kaplan’s evasiveness helps preserve the album’s inherent sense of mystery — which only deepens upon repeated listens. Summer Sun isn’t obvious music. The more you delve for meaning, the more you’re likely to get lost.
And that effect really speaks to the band’s increased poetic skill — these days, Hubley and Kaplan aren’t as eager to bury their vocals.
Writing better lyrics, Kaplan confesses, has been a main goal for the band. “To not hide the singing, but get behind it,” he explains.
“Here and there, the occasional lyric that I wrote earlier was OK,” Kaplan continues. “But for the most part, it had a lot to do with, ‘You gotta say something, something’s gotta go there. Do something — get it over with.’
“The lyrics,” he admits, “are still written last and are still, in the timeline of things, almost an afterthought. But at this point, when we get to them, we try to approach them as seriously as everything else we do.”
Continuing along the same trajectory as And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out (Matador, 2000), Summer Sun employs a number of guest musicians from New York’s experimental-jazz scene. And the end result is once again low-key.
Albums prior to And Then Nothing did contain soft, moodier pieces, but those were usually heavily outnumbered by noisier rockers.
Why the downshift? Kaplan again doesn’t have much to say.
And, again, his lack of illumination — if you have the patience for it — ultimately does the band’s music more justice.
“The last two records have been noticeably quieter than the other records,” he agrees. “We try not to know why …”
Intuition, obviously, is a vital part of Yo La Tengo’s recording style.
Summer Sun is the sixth consecutive Yo La Tengo album to be helmed by hands-off producer Roger Moutenot; but it was only during recording of And Then Nothing that the band began taking a clear notice of its own composition process, Kaplan suggests.
“We were doing the song ‘Our Way to Fall,'” he explains. “Georgia was going to add a vibes part, so she was listening to the track, kind of working out what she was going to do, and Roger just recorded it [the way it was].