Yo La Tengo
Summer Sun may be the most understated album of a not exactly showy career, this nominal guitar band hiding that instrument in a mix of percussion, bass, and synthesizer whose gentle communicativeness mirrors the tone of co-leaders and marrieds-for-life Ira Kaplan's and Georgia Hubley's murmured sing-speak vocals. There are no guitar rave-ups here Ö la And Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out's "Cherry Chapstick" and no organ attacks like those on Electr-O-Pura or Painful. Even the lone instrumental, the relaxed, funky "Georgia Vs. Yo La Tengo," fits the record's dreamy mood.
It's true that Yo La Tengo gets fantastic press as much for (but, it should be noted, not more for) what they stand for as what they do. Post-punk-bred rock critics love them not just because their jazzy soundscapes are soft, subtle, and warm without ever descending into lounge kitsch; and not just because they write such sharp songs that manage to be sweet without ever being sentimental; and not just because when Kaplan has the mind to he crafts the prettiest guitar skronk anyone's ever heard, but also for what they signify: "alternative" not as musical genre, marketing plan, cultural fad, or knee-jerk nonconformity, but alternative as viable, enduring life-choice -- modest, arty, adventurous, marginal by design. You can live this way, their records seem to attest, and live well and decently.
Not since John Lennon and Yoko Ono's Double Fantasy has any pop music presented such a cozy, alluring vision of lifelong commitment, of love-and-marriage bohemian-style. The difference, of course, is that Double Fantasy is one record, whereas Kaplan and Hubley have made a whole career out of this subject. And the best songs on Summer Sun focus on a particular and relatively unexplored sliver of this topic -- the notion of lovers together yet alone. ("Do you need to be alone to unwind?/That's alright, that's alright," Kaplan sings on "Season of the Shark," "I want to be the one to make you feel okay right now/Someway, somehow.")
On Hubley's "Little Eyes," she's an insomniac waiting for Ira to wake up, wishing she could share her nighttime thoughts with him. Kaplan's "Nothing But You and Me" urges Georgia to wake up so they can make up. And on the heart-stopper "Don't Have To Be So Sad," Ira puts his bedtime reading down to watch his wife sleep, offering an atheist's prayer that she knows how much he loves her.
The band's 1997 I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One remains their apotheosis, the summation of all they know and all that matters about them. But this lifelong musical partnership is as strong as ever, and Summer Sun adds another winning chapter to the story. -- Chris Herrington
Level II -- Blackstreet (Dreamworks): The first half is sex-centric R&B as pornographic as early Prince but without his genius musicality or redeeming weirdness. There's no real kink to these oh-so-clinical booty-call tales, which makes their over-insistent bluntness less erotic than gross. And this makes the "respectable" lovey-dovey moves down the stretch seem crass. If you're looking for a groove anywhere near as overwhelming as their one fluke classic --"No Diggity" -- keep looking. ("Wizzy Wow")
Do You Swing? --The Fleshtones (Yep Roc): "Legendary" garage-rock party band from the late-'70s/early-'80s who weren't that great to begin with give it another shot now that this stuff is selling. The energy and attitude is there; the songs aren't. If clunky vocals and leaden grooves are your kind of party, give it a spin, but this makes a lot of current-generation by-the-numbers genre bands sound like the Beatles. ("Destination Greenpoint," "Alright")
Bright Yellow Bright Orange -- The Go-Betweens (Jetset): In which Crowded House-for-bookworms becomes a full-time band again, glory hallelujah. But this isn't where to start with the Go-Betweens: Try the compilation 1978-1990 or their fantastic 2000 comeback, The Friends of Rachel Worth, where Sleater-Kinney drummer Janet Weiss pushed their romantic guitar-pop skyward. Those already in the know will like this perhaps too-modest batch of new Forster-McLennan tunes fine, especially the one where Grant takes a trip to Brazil. ("Caroline & I," "Something for Myself")
Philadelphia Freeway -- Freeway (Roc-A-Fella): Jay-Z protÇgÇ has his Rookie of the Year candidacy sidetracked by a couple of all-too-familiar hip-hop hurdles: an overlong album (70-plus minutes) and overly gratuitous guest spots. ("What We Do," "Line 'Em Up")
The Lost Freestyle Files --Supernatural (Babygrande/Koch): The live freestyle battles captured here aren't as polished as what you've seen in 8 Mile but also aren't scripted. If you want an example of hip-hop reduced to its raw basics, you won't find much better than the radio-show and concert cuts from this underground hype. Supernatural rhymes like Biggie and rhymes like a fish, but if you ask this judge, he still gets taken by his competition -- Juice -- on the collection's 12-minute centerpiece battle, "Get Ready To Rumble." Oh yeah, and the studio cuts that bookend the live stuff are pretty hot too. ("Internationally Known," "A Piece of Hip Hop History Pt. 2," "Clash of the Titans," "Get Ready to Rumble") -- CH