A covers album is only as good as the material the band is performing and Yo La Tengo has chosen a great collection of tunes.
Ask 10 Yo La Tengo fans what their favorite Yo La album is, and you’re likely to get 10 different answers. The band tweaks their sound and tries so many styles that it’s possible to be a fan of just one, small moment in the band’s considerable discography, from the shoegaze textures of Painful to the moody dream-pop of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. This eclectic attitude even comes across in their various covers albums: they’ve done low-key takes on forgotten classics (Fakebook), they’ve disguised themselves as a dingy garage-rock band (Fuckbook, under the alias Condo Fucks), and they’ve recorded themselves seemingly playing whatever came to their mind (Yo La Tengo Is Murdering The Classics). Since guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan has had to take time off for medical reasons in recent years, Yo La Tengo’s music has calmed down. Stuff Like That There continues the muted material the band explored on 2013’s Fade, only with a few classics written by the likes of Hank Williams, Robert Smith, and even Yo La Tengo themselves.
Musically, Stuff Like That There resembles the band’s approach on Fakebook, albeit with a much fuller sound; the wild abandon of Condo Fucks is nowhere to be found. This is the quieter version of Yo La Tengo. Even with the return of original guitarist Dave Schramm, Yo La keeps things simple and melodic. In that sense, Schramm’s return is ideal for a record like this: his clean-picked, modest style may not quite gel with Ira Kaplan’s fondness for distorted dissonance, but he’s the perfect person to play on an album of this nature. His lead part on The Special Pillows’ “Automatic Doom” functions almost as a third vocal performance, sliding in perfectly alongside Kaplan and Georgia Hubley. Moreover, his presence gives the two new songs on the album, “Rickety” and “Awhileaway,” a heart-wrenching realness that has been lacking on Yo La Tengo’s last two albums.
A covers album is only as good as the material the band is performing and Yo La Tengo has chosen a great collection of tunes for Stuff Like That There. Each song fits the band’s unique style in surprising ways: one wouldn’t expect Georgia Hubley to set the world afire with “Friday I’m In Love,” but her understated performance conveys just as much emotion as Robert Smith’s histrionics on the original. She even outdoes Hank Williams on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a cover that finds itself somewhere between the Williams original and Al Green’s hit rendition. Perhaps the most exciting re-interpretation is one of Yo La Tengo’s own classics, “Deeper Into Movies.” Whereas the original blasted out through a wall of distortion, this version is affecting rather than overwhelming. At points, it sounds more like a demo of the original than another interpretation and the success of this version underlines the strength of “Deeper Into Movies” from a songwriting perspective.
It’s hard to understand why Yo La Tengo decided to return to their Fakebook sound with Stuff Like That There, but a band as long-lasting as Yo La Tengo doesn’t have to justify their every move. Besides, as far as sequels go, Stuff Like That There gets everything right. What worked back in 1990 works again here. After 25 years, the band still has one key element in place: their undying fascination with and love for pop music.