Beating as One

Yo La Tengo Make Their Love Album

In other words, Georgia and Ira are the rare citizens of Alternia, an imaginary nation-community that prizes intimacy, who have made intimacy signify—not just with their couplehood putting flesh on the illusion, but with the hard-earned skills of hobbyists turned pro. They were so well-liked that early on they could coast as the pet band of the New York scene. But they were in it for love and in love for life, and they kept getting better. The turning point, although hardly the first positive sign, was 1993's Painful—they haven't made anything approaching a duff album since. And 1993 is key for another reason: it's when Georgia and Ira hooked up with a permanent bassist, the decade-younger James McNew. Without McNew, would Ira have become the true postpunk Neil Young in a domain teeming with pretenders to that rude wooden throne? Would Georgia have become a forceful then subtle drummer, a charming then thoughtful singer? Probably, but you might not have noticed. As they coalesced into a full-fledged band their formal command crystallized as well.

In 1997, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One—a title that evokes couple and band simultaneously—managed to say everything they had to say in 78 minutes or less: rock riffs, pop rips, organ trips, impossibly pretty tunes they might have made up themselves, doo-doo-doos by the number, ambient miasma, McNew's gorgeous Neil ballad "Stockholm Syndrome," and loads of love love love. It's no challenge or insult to state categorically that they'll never top it. A career album is the musical version of eternal life, not a death sentence. But though I didn't ask and doubt they'd agree, the dilemma of not topping it may be why they proceeded to 2000's rather beautiful, very slow And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out, the lounged-up mood of which reflects both McNew's omnivorous contemporary CD consumption and Georgia's lifelong involvement with soundtracks.

Summer Sun starts off from the same lovely place, with the trumpet-flecked atmospherics of "Beach Party Tonight," then picks up the tempo with the first of three songs that define the album. Georgia's "Little Eyes" longs to share her insomniac wanderings; Ira's "Don't Have to Be So Sad" tells her how much he loves her while she sleeps unhearing; Ira's "Nothing but You and Me" prays she wake up to make up. All are solidly hooked at a decent speed, all suggest discontents that may be literal autobiography or apt poetry, and all take off from a paradigmatic marriage state unfamiliar to newer, younger couples—the state where one partner is conscious and the other isn't. On this record where McNew is totally present and totally backgrounded, the way longtime lovers are always there to remind each other isn't just a theme. It's bedrock. Even the instrumental track that kicks off the second half, a Medeski Martin & Wood-for-Dummies organ-funk thing that's the most striking by far of the band's many attempts to create a theoretical lounge number to go with all their theoretical pop ditties, is entitled "Georgia vs. Yo La Tengo." You wonder whether that's her on bongos, on piano. But you know she's always there.

Citizens of Alternia, making intimacy signify
photo: Matthew Salacuse
Citizens of Alternia, making intimacy signify

Happiness shape-shifts and no bohemia is forever—our president's political and economic policies are designed among other things to destroy all the alternacomforts we've learned to take for granted. So Georgia and Ira aren't some ideal to emulate, and wouldn't claim to be. Me, I like Kim and Thurston's sharpness, and in addition, they're real-life as well as symbolic parents—only childless couples enjoy the kind of slack that accrues to shy kids with a junk room. But I also like Georgia and Ira's kindness, steadiness, supportiveness. I feel them as secret sharers, fellow spirits, symbolic pals. And I'm grateful Yo La Tengo left this emotional record while the emotions were good.

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