Yo La Tengo are full of surprises, aren’t they? Hot on the heels of summer’s We Have Amnesia Sometimes EP, which consisted of five ambient instrumental pieces, recorded on one microphone while adhering to New Jersey’s social distancing regulations, we now have Sleepless Night. Five of the six songs on this EP are covers. While nothing screams “writer’s block” louder than “reinterpretations” of other people’s material, especially following an EP of semi-improvised material, we have to cut Yo La Tengo a little slack. They’re no strangers to a judiciously chosen, ultra-hip cover version. They probably won’t burst into a rousing version of “Sweet Home Alabama” anytime soon, but if you’re looking for an angst-filled cover of a one-hit-wonder from 1969, step right up.
The thread which links all the songs on Sleepless Night is beyond tenuous. In a very Yo La Tengo move, all the songs were picked in collaboration with Japanese visual artist Yoshitomo Nara to form part of a limited-edition catalog for his Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibit. Over 19 minutes, you get blues (“Blues Stay Away”), folk-rock (“Wasn’t Born to Follow”), rootsy Americana (“Roll on Babe”), a bit of Dylan (“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”), and pop (“Smile a Little Smile for Me”). The joker in the pack is the only original: “Bleeding”, which is a prime piece of ethereal shoegaze. And if that wasn’t eclectic enough, these recordings are harvested from all over the place in Yo La Tengo’s history. It’s like a really short mixtape for someone who works in a record store and has no attention span.
Once you get over the scattershot smorgasbord of songs, there’s a lot to enjoy. “Blues Stay Away” is a lovely piece of 1940s blues, played straight and charmingly sung. It’s minimal and heartfelt. Then, we lurch into a faithful version of the Byrds’ version of “Wasn’t Born to Follow” with the psychedelic/country guitar licks reverently reproduced by Dave Schramm. The Dylan cover swaps the bluesy plod of the original for a rather unsettling sub-gothic approach. Low key vocals and a reverb-heavy electric guitar shimmer while the bass diligently pumps out two beats to the bar. It works very, very well.
Two tracks really shine on
Sleepless Night. “Roll on Babe”, a Derroll Adams tune, semi-popularised by Ronnie Lane on his Anymore for Anymore album, is a delightful campfire strum, augmented by some tasteful Hammond Organ. It’s also more Dylan-esque than the Dylan cover. It sounds like a forgotten classic, and kudos should be given to whoever dragged this out of the back of their record box to dust it down and spiff it up. The other high point is their version of the Flying Machine’s 1969 hit “Smile a Little Smile for Me”. The original is a cute slice of paisley-pop, but Yo La Tengo twist it into a wistful ballad with a gorgeous, bittersweet vocal delivery. In their hands, it resembles a Willie Nelson song. It’s that good.
The whole world is on hold now, so it seems unfair to expect musicians to keep on delivering the goods as if nothing untoward was happening. As placeholders go,
Sleepness Night is a pretty good one. If you’re the sort of person who had your iPod on shuffle all the time, this is a gift. If you’re not, be persistent. Patience is a virtue.