Music Reviews
Stuff Like That There

Yo La Tengo Stuff Like That There

(Matador) Rating - 8/10

Stuff Like That There is not your typical covers album. Some recording artists, and I'm not saying names, resort to covers when the creative well runs dry and contract obligations demand new product. That's not the case here. In a career that spans over 30 years, Yo La Tengo has applied the same exacting standards to originals and covers alike. For this project, the task of matching strands of country, soul, and indie sounds would have been daunting, but the band handles the job with composed confidence. The unifying factor is a semi-acoustic approach first heard on 1990's Fakebook, an album that helped cement the band's reputation way back when. Therefore, it's no coincidence that former member Dave Schramm is back in the fold, handling crisp guitar lines with unruffled ease. It's a cause for celebration, and he'll be joining the band on their upcoming tour, but the sentimental journey is just the icing on the cake. The group has worked hard on these interpretations. In their universe past and present converge as all-directions promenades, clearly evident in the selection of songs.

As musical archeologists, Yo La Tengo shine a light on obscure oldies and contemporary gems, prompting us to seek out the originals. Take the case of album opener My Heart's Not In It, a 1964 soul tune written by Gerry Goffin and Russ Titelman for Darlene McCrea, former lead singer of The Cookies. On Yo La Tengo's hands, the Motown-style arrangement is shucked aside for a gentle sound that brings to mind late-fifties vocal groups like The Fleetwoods. This minimalist approach also works well on George Clinton's I Can Hear The Ice Melting. They can't belt out the tune like The Parliaments did, so they focus on the emotional delivery to put the message across. It all matches well with their selection of indie cuts from Great Plains, Antietam, and Special Pillow. Songs like Before We Stopped To Think and Automatic Doom are given a reverential folk treatment, both standing out as open-heart confessions.

The band's not afraid of tackling mainstream evergreens. There are countless versions of Hank William's I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry, but some unexpected chords coupled with Georgia Hubley's deft vocals recharge this classic. She shines again on The Cure's Friday I'm In Love, giving the boot to Robert Smith's gushing optimism and replacing it with cautious joy.

Three songs from previous albums have been revamped: All Your Secrets, The Ballad Of Red Buckets, and Deeper Into Movies. These are done in the tradition of spare, direct rock, where a hint of reverb is enough to change the tone. Without keyboards or guitar feedback the delivery of the lyrics gets center stage, heightening the emotional import. However, plucking the strings of time is only half the story. There are two new songs, and both measure up well against these band staples. With fluid stand-up bass lines and a tight blend of voices, Rickety sounds like The Velvet Underground if they had come from Brazil. By contrast, Awhileaway belongs in the realm of the otherworldly, its sustained guitar lines wafting from some psychedelic daydream.

It's remarkable that the 14 tracks here sounds of a piece. Music from diverse artists such as The Lovin' Spoonful and Sun Ra adds bold tangents to the album's design yet fits as perfectly as clockwork. It takes an unusual talent to make these connections. It's no wonder, then, why Yo La Tengo is still around. They have never fallen into the trap of insularity, which often takes good bands to a dead end. With the zeal of archivists and a yen for experimentation, they have found strength in giving tribute to their influences, reaffirming the role of interpretation in contemporary music.