Yo La Tengo look both inward and outward on their new covers album.
A covers album from a band as prolific and as weathered as Yo La Tengo can initially seem, well, lazy. A band that has already released 12 albums chock full of original material clearly knows how to write a good song, so why should we care when they decide to release an album largely made up of other peoples. Well, because it is Yo La Tengo that we are talking about. Due in large part to their first cover album, 1990’s Fakebook as well as extensive tours which features myriad covers, both recognizable and otherwise, Yo La Tengo has established themselves as perhaps the best indie cover band of all time, and Stuff Like That There only builds upon that notion.
One of the reasons they are able to make cover albums that are so engrossing that you can easily mistake them as completely original — as this reviewer admittedly did — is because of variety. One technique that they also implement is covering the band they know best of all: themselves.
Why this may seem ever lazier than covering other bands it actually takes a great bit of self-reflection and even greater skill. Sure, you can look at this idea as simply a way to cash in on a few popular songs more than once by re-releasing them, but Yo La Tengo aren't interested in simply rehashing the past. Instead they take their songs, break them down to their core, and then build up whole new walls around them.
A track like “Deeper Into Movies” off of 1997’s I Can Hear the Heart Beating As One is arguably one of the band’s most revered songs, in large part because of the hectic emotion brought on by the tracks moments of harsh dissonance. So what do they do for the 2015 version? They strip away almost all the noise and place acoustic strumming in place of the heavy reverb. This puts the lyrics, which relay the emotion as well if not better than the original, front and center. The more mature Yo La Tengo seems okay to slow things down and give us more refined emotion rather than raw energy, likely because they have had years to ruminate over what exactly is it they were trying to convey.
“Deeper Into the Movies” isn’t the only songs on Stuff Like That There In which the band favors a more stripped down and quiet version of some of their past work. “All Your Secrets” takes driving synths and replaces them with airy strumming. The remake of 1995’s “The Ballad of Red Buckets” does the same, switching from reverb heavy guitar to finger picking acoustic, all while holding on to the hooks and riffs that make the song enjoyable in either form.
Despite their success in covering themselves, a cover album truly lives and dies by the songs that the band chooses to cover, and in that Yo La Tengo flourish. The group pulls from such an eclectic mix as Hank Williams to The Cure to an almost unknown psych-pop band, Pillow Talk for the wide-variety of songs choices.
Covers like the Cure's “Friday I’m In Love”, originally a hit in quintessential early-'90s Britpop, are both honored and tweaked. Yo La Tengo’s version, while holding on to the tune and structure, becomes infinitely more intimate. Georgia Hubley’s hush vocals change the lyrics from somewhat trite, high school pining, to a more secretive love song in true Yo La Tengo style.
You get the sense throughout Stuff Like That There that part of Yo La Tengo’s mission in continuing to play and release countless cover songs is in part to bring to light music that they themselves love. Almost every musician begins by playing their favorite music and despite the fact that Yo La Tengo’s founding members have long since shed beginner status, they continue to hold on to the visceral joy that come with playing along with your favorite songs, and in that they stay fresh as ever.