There is no heavy lifting involved in listening to Yo La Tengo’s 14th album, Stuff Like That There, but that’s not why it’s a cause for celebration. The durable 30-year-old Hoboken trio leaves aside the guitar squalls, soundtrack atmospherics, and fuzz obfuscation (for now) and finally does what many listeners and record company managers have been waiting a quarter-century for: a return to the hushed acoustic territory of 1990’s Fakebook.
But that’s not exactly why it’s a cause for celebration either. While it’s accurate to call Stuff Like That There a sequel, it is also reductive, just as it is to think of either album as merely an acoustic covers collection. Stuff Like That There is a new Yo La Tengo album, full stop. Mixing other writers’ songs with the Tengos’ own (both new and rearranged), it is both as unpredictable as anything in the band’s EP-/single-swollen catalog and likewise and simultaneously as instantly welcoming to anyone without knowledge of the band’s long history — an achievement by itself for a three-decade-running outfit. For Yo La Tengo fans, it’s Hanukkah in August.
In a very real sense, Yo La Tengo’s musical path in the 25 years since Fakebook might be seen as an extended flight from the easy-flowing folk that broke through to college radio and record buyers in 1990. “Are you scared of making money?” Mr. Show‘s John Ennis, as a record company executive, bellowed at the trio in the band’s 1997 “Sugarcube” video. He might have been winking at Fakebook‘s chronological follow-up: the far woolier May I Sing With Me, bracketed by extended jams and only the faintest hints of Fakebook‘s accessibility.
But not even the most hardened exec from central casting could be bummed by Stuff Like That There. It is as beautiful an album as has come from Hoboken in years, ready for playlists, licensing, videos, curated music services, or whatever else people do with music in the 21st century, especially quiet personal listening. Though an aggressively eclectic range of covers dominates, from ’80s alt-country (Great Plains’ “Before We Stopped To Think”) to ’50s novelty pop (Sun Ra’s “Somebody’s In Love”), the biggest attraction is Yo La Tengo itself.
For starters, there’s Georgia Hubley, who became a co-lead vocalist in Yo La Tengo for the first time on Fakebook, and who remains a beautiful and wry interpreter of other people’s songs. She finds sad, sweet new territory in songs by The Parliaments (“I Can Feel The Ice Melting”), The Cure (“Friday I’m In Love”), and her own husband, transforming Yo La Tengo’s “Deeper Into Movies” from a wall of sound into a late-night reverie. Also returning from Fakebook is lead guitarist Dave Schramm, an early band member and periodic collaborator since, whose elegant Americana filigrees articulate and amplify Kaplan and Hubley’s natural sparseness. But Schramm’s more-than-welcome return also underscores the many ways Stuff Like That There is wider and deeper than Fakebook, made by a band that has spent the intervening years making music with a variety of other approaches, all of which seem to fold neatly into the album’s all-new songs, “Rickety” and “Awhileaway.”
Listened to side-by-side with its predecessor, Stuff Like That There is a remarkable demonstration of the value of career-long detours and constant change. Joining the band for 1992’s May I Sing With Me was bassist James McNew, quickly becoming a permanent third collaborator alongside Hubley and Kaplan. Though he sadly doesn’t get any lead vocal turns on Stuff Like That There (an odd bit of Fakebook literalism), his innate musicality transformed Yo La Tengo into an almost wholly new band over the course of the mid-’90s, and McNew’s (new-to-him) upright bass is a natural addition for that Stuff Like That sound, the band swinging a lot more gracefully than they did 25 years ago. Ira Kaplan, too, has evolved into a richer singer, developing a low, expressive creak, heard on Great Plains’ “Before We Stopped To Think.” He comes with infinitely more guitar confidence, as well, easily slipping into short between-verse mini-jams with Schramm on a reinterpretation of Yo La Tengo’s “The Ballad of Red Buckets.” If Fakebook was a great album made by a good band, Stuff Like That There is more on both counts.
If it all sounds just a little too much like Yo La Tengo, that is only because Yo La Tengo have made themselves sound like so many things. This autumn will likewise see the release of Parallelogram, a new five-LP, ten-artist box on Three Lobed that contains “Electric Eye,” a murky 26-minute Yo La Tengo improvisation that lurches from propulsive thump into burbling loop swamps and back. It, too, might sound just a little too much like Yo La Tengo. So, for that matter, could the Little Black Egg Big Band, the expanded avant-drone umbrella the group has collaborated under in recent years. Or the Condo Fucks, an overdriven all-covers garage-rock incarnation with one full-length (so far) on Matador; Fuckbook, naturally.
Another reason why it’s reductive to think of Stuff Like That There as merely a sequel is because, since Fakebook, Yo La Tengo have produced probably two or three albums’ worth of similar material across singles, EPs, radio sessions, and whole tours under their Freewheelin’ Yo La Tengo banner, a repertoire that most recently includes a 2012 7-inch with a spare interpretation of Times New Viking’s “Move to California,” a song only three years old. The band’s talent for picking excellent cover material, new or old, remains nearly unparalleled. If a listener knows even a few of the songs covered on the new album, it’s likely a pretty high batting average. That’s because the music on Stuff Like That There, in total, belongs to Yo La Tengo, including covers by BFFs’ bands, such as Antietam’s endlessly lovely “Naples” and low-key Brooklyn psych-droners The Special Pillow’s “Automatic Doom.”
For Yo La Tengo, playing as they do on Stuff Like That There isn’t a concept or strategy or a gimmick, just a kind of music-making they shift into from time to time. Had the album been recorded a year before or a year after, the songs included would likely be completely different, an in-the-moment document of the band’s changing surface. How the prevailing indie-sphere receives the music is almost irrelevant. Yo La Tengo are a band that does things, and this is one, carrying with it the weight and humor they’ve earned over three decades. Yo La Tengo are a band in an age of acts, more old-fashioned and more essential than ever.