Yo La Tengo Plays It Heavy On Natural Covers Via ‘Sleepless Night’ EP (ALBUM REVIEW)

The members of Yo La Tengo are no strangers to covers. Whether it’s their three cover albums, Fakebook, Fuckbook and Stuff Like That There, their fundraising efforts for WFMU in New Jersey, or their extensive live repertoire, the band has proven prolific in their effortless mimicry. Now, that would be a great party trick for any group, but paired with their acclaimed discography it means that even YLT’s minor releases are notably meticulous. 

Sleepless Night was originally released as a one-sided, 12-inch record for a Yoshitomo Nara exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Nara, a long-time fan, helped choose the songs YLT would perform and even designed the cover art. Maybe it’s a testament to their friendship that Nara’s selections seem to be exactly what one might expect from a YLT cover EP, but it’s also important to note that the band has long held a fondness for the music of Nara’s youth. 

That’s why the five covers featured here all work sonically and thematically together as a whole; as on The Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away” and The Byrds “Wasn’t Born to Follow” the country-western sway of the former and jangly psychedelia of the latter are mellowed by Ira Kaplan’s hushed vocals and YLT’s distinctive production, leaving behind only the sunny 60s melodies. Ronnie Lane’s “Roll On Babe” and The Flying Machine’s “Smile a Little Smile for Me” similarly find the band carrying restrained confidence that makes these tracks sound both natural and reverent.

If two tracks stick out from the cohesion on Sleepless Night, albeit minorly, it would be the sole original, “Bleeding” and Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.” “Bleeding” is a breezy mood piece, characteristic of YLT-circa And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out while “Train”, the most distinct rendition here, actually came from those sessions over twenty years ago. Altogether, as with most of YLT’s covers over the years, Sleepless Night is a stellar selection of songs completed by a very talented trio. If it sounds like the group could record most of these covers in their sleep, that only shows how well the band has honed their tribute skills. If YLT’s original music ever falls out of favor, they’ve already developed a pretty successful side-gig as a traveling jukebox.

Photo by Noah Kalina

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