Thirty years into their career as a band, Yo La Tengo continues to evolve, but always on their own terms. This particular phase of their evolution finds members Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew coming full circle in many ways, and returning to their roots. New album Stuff Like That There is a celebration of their three-decade milestone anniversary and it reunites them with former electric guitarist Dave Schramm on a series of cover songs. In addition to covering classics from Hank Williams and The Cure (to name a few), the band also cover themselves, offering up new renditions of songs from past records like I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and Electr-o-pura. Similar in concept to their still fantastic 1990 covers record Fakebook, Stuff Like That There is smartly curated and each song choice has that undeniable Yo La Tengo signature.
The record opens with a gorgeous, dreamy cover of Darlene McCrae’s (The Cookies) 1964 tune “My Heart’s Not in It”, written by Gerry Goffin and Russ Titelman. Hubley takes the vocal lead on much of this album, and her voice is so sweet and gentle here, it’s heartbreaking. Like many of Goffin’s songs, this one transcends time. It’s got a classic pop melody and simple lyrics, and Yo La Tengo masters it with such softness, you almost forget it’s not their song.
Their cover of Hank Williams’ iconic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is similarly wispy and sensitive, with Kaplan sharing vocal duties to create delicate harmonies. But Hubley’s sleepy singing combined with a sluggish pace doesn’t do this one full justice, especially considering it’s one of the most emotional songs ever written and performed by Williams. Hubley’s style does work particularly well on a Nico-esque cover of The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love”, complemented with crisp, warm acoustic guitar. In fact, it’s a rare to even hear her sing quite this much on a Yo La Tengo record, and on many songs, her voice has a sultry lull to it. This song serves as one of the more interesting—and odd—choices on Stuff, being the most mainstream offering, but their non-flashy approach to it is appreciated.
The two new tunes on Stuff Like That There are the Kaplan-led “Rickety” and “Awhileaway”, both classic sounding Yo La Tengo, and neither too memorable. These are not the high points of the album, but they’re solid entries nonetheless. “Rickety” is the stronger of the two, with a catchy melody that will garner repeat listens, and “Awhileaway” is a bit of a rainy day snooze.
Of their own covers, none are truly ground-breaking or stray too far from the originals, but these versions are gorgeous in their own right. “Deeper into Movies” is a stripped down, quieter take on their fuzzy and harder rocking original, as is “The Ballad of Red Buckets”. Both sound almost like demos of the originals, sweetened and without much production.
The more obscure covers are the best examples of both Yo La Tengo’s taste making, and indie rock influence. Bands like Antietam, The Lovin’ Spoonful and Special Pillow are covered with unmatched Yo La Tengo coolness. “I Can Feel the Ice Melting”, a quaint and thoughtful Parliaments cover is a standout, as is the dark and moody Great Plains tune “Before We Stopped to Think.” And the Sun Ra cover of “Somebody’s in Love” is sunny pop perfection, making Stuff Like That There, a worthwhile musical education.