For most rock bands, the covers album is an exercise in nostalgia or a contract-filling measure while a drained songwriting well refills. But for Hoboken, N.J., indie institution Yo La Tengo, it’s a way to document a major part of its work: the artistic lineage that it has built for itself through decades of crate-digging.
As anyone who has seen Yo La Tengo live knows, the group augments its own material with a deep repertoire of mostly little-known songs by other artists; spontaneous, surprising covers are one of the band’s specialties. New album Stuff Like That There (named after a Betty Hutton hit from 1945, which isn’t included) almost exactly reprises the format of Yo La Tengo’s 1990 album Fakebook: a couple of new songs, a few remakes of older originals and a whole lot of covers, rendered in YLT’s quieter, semi-acoustic mode. Former bandmate Dave Schramm sits in on lead guitar while drummer Georgia Hubley and guitarist Ira Kaplan sing almost under their breath, their harmonies more weathered and intuitive now than they were during the Fakebook era. Yo La Tengo’s guitars sound more precisely burnished — a subdued reworking of its 1997 noise blowout “Deeper Into Movies” is especially gorgeous — but this is clearly a mode that comes naturally to the band.
The only two familiar songs here are impossibly tender renditions of Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love.” The group’s ongoing fascination with jazz outsider Sun Ra bears fruit with its gently goofy chanting on “Somebody’s in Love,” a 1955 oddity from Ra’s doo-wop side project The Cosmic Rays. But one theme that emerges from Stuff Like That There is Yo La Tengo’s deep affection for the small community from which it emerged: The band pays tribute to local scenemates Antietam and Special Pillow, and reprises its own song “The Ballad of Red Buckets,” an homage to an all-but-forgotten group that YLT knew during its earliest days. Stuff Like That There shows that Yo La Tengo is, remarkably, still effectively the same band it was a quarter-century ago: graceful, centered and eager to play its latest finds.