Yo La Tengo are no spring chickens. They’re a rarity of an indie band that cut their teeth in the days before the internet and social media, and are revered as all the grittier and more authentic for it. Like an alt-rock version of Melvins, YLT have a history of whacky album titles, a ravenous cult-like following of bespectacled former punks in their early thirties and a liberal (if not quite as detached) approach to recording and performing cover songs. But where Buzzo and the gang seek to satirize the very idea of rock ’n’ roll fandom through perverted, tongue-in-cheek versions of classics like “My Generation” and “Black Betty,” Yo La Tengo tend to respect and preserve the dignity of the cuts they reinterpret. Usually.
Case in point with both Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and The Cure’s “Friday I’m In Love,” undoubtedly the two most well-known tunes that Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley chose to include in their latest release, Stuff Like That There. Even the semi-obscure Lovin’ Spoonful single “Butchie’s Tune” is faithfully jaunty and optimistic. Yo La Tengo have been all over the musical road for the past three decades, producing every sound under the sun – from jangly power pop to abrasive noise rock. But the pendulum seems to finally have swung backwards from the garage grunge/shoegaze renaissance that contained I Am Not Afraid of You And I Will Beat Your Ass and Fakebook, along with the entirety of the group’s G.G. Allin-sounding side project The Condo Fucks. This time they’ve sailed clear over the fuzz pedals and Mellotron organs and landed in a glossy, Calexico-esque pasture of southwest country rock with delicate slide guitars for soil and drum brushes for vegetation.
The ratio of six originals to eight covers inspires obvious comparison to 1990’s Fakebook record, though this LP is far more sonically cohesive and texturally uniform from track to track. Debut highlights like “The Ballad of Red Buckets” and “Rickety” are all about the love affair between the stand-up bass and his faithful companion the ride cymbal, and topped with Kaplan and Hubley’s trademark whispery, relaxed vocal harmonies. The forlorn ballad of lost love “My Heart’s Not in It” sets the delicate tone of the collection.
While Hank William’s blank canvas of a country song “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” lends itself to any style that you can wrap around three chords, Robert Smith’s pop classic stands reworked as a distinctly piano-less piece of adult contemporary coffee shop ambiance. Yo La Tengo are certainly not the first people to do this and it comes off as the least bit pedestrian. Hell, even 311 did a little digging to pick an album cut from Disintegration to utterly soil. YLT might, however, be the first white people to ever record “I Can Feel The Ice Melting,” a pre-funk P-Funk slice of doo wop soul, seen here with a subdued swing rhythm and regrettably fewer mallet instruments than George Clinton’s version. Oddly enough, the moment that feels most like the album’s centerpiece is also its finale: Yo La Tengo’s own “Deeper into Movies,” a resurrected track from 1997’s I Can Feel The Heart Beat As One, here stripped of the expansive, enveloping, static-caked guitars and filled out with atmospheric vocals and synth effects.
Is Stuff Like That There an album? Is it a compilation? Whatever it is, it’s sparse and serene on purpose, enjoyable more for the tertiary sonic elements than for the lyrics and core songwriting that Yo La Tengo fans probably expect. At the end of the day you’ll be left wondering what any of this Stuff has in common besides the faux jazz ensemble it was arranged for.