Yo La Tengo's 'Stuff Like That There', Reviewed

The gentlest and least eclectic album from indie rock’s gentlest band rewards attention, but no foul if that attention wanders.
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The gentlest and least eclectic album from indie rock’s gentlest band rewards attention, but no foul if that attention wanders.

Stuff Like That There is one of those “looking back on our history” records, in this case a “sequel of sorts” to a 1990 Yo La Tengo album called Fakebook, in which indie’s favorite insular couple covered the Holy Modal Rounders, Cat Stevens, Daniel Johnston, Gene Clark, the Flamin’ Groovies, and many more, and also reworked originals and threw in some new ones, all in sunny twangy stripped-down alt-country mode. It was all very pleasant. One might even say wearyingly pleasant!

Yeah, I have to say off the top that I’ve never been crazy about Fakebook, and don’t enjoy not being crazy over it while so many other fans continue to be charmed by its charming summery charmingness. Especially because…well, full disclosure: I adore Yo La Tengo. Everything about them. Yes, I know they operate in a very specific niche, and that the sonic and emotional palette of that niche is very incremental with its rewards, and that Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley’s have more eclectic taste than they do eclectic musical ideas. But here’s the thing: if you’re open enough to Yo La Tengo’s approach to that niche, that worldview, you open yourself up to a humble and beautiful little corner of the world whose intimacy seems so familiar (and simple) and yet somehow isn’t (and isn’t). If you like one Yo La Tengo album, you have no reason not to like them all. Sometimes they’re fast and loud and drone-y and raving and fuzzy; sometimes — and with increasing frequency as they get older (as tends to happen) — they’re slow and quiet and lilting and delicate and precise. But they’re always warm, always unabashedly romantic, and the way they consider or tiptoe around their notion of intimacy — informed, of course, by a nearly-30-year marriage — allows for some of the most gorgeous atmospherics in independent rock music, full stop. Their conviction to a domesticated boho slackerdom isn’t just endearing, it’s borne more lovely fruit than anyone could’ve reasonably hoped for, and their idea of love as a shared hideaway swirling with dreamlike bits of pop ephemera is…well, it’s just incredibly pretty. Consider them the sweetest and most textured band ever beholden to the Velvet Underground’s third album in all its kindnesses and quiet crises.

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Yet it’s for those reasons that I don’t play Fakebook much and wasn’t exactly thrilled with the similar billing of this new one. By stripping down to an acoustic country model, Fakebook saw Georgia and Ira briefly abandon their approach to the Velvet Underground (which is what they’re best at) in favor of that aforementioned alt-country style (which they’re decent but not remarkable at); the choice of material is inspired, the execution mostly isn’t, and frankly the sonic sameness gets boring about halfway through. 2000’s And Then Nothing Turned-Itself Inside Out, 2003’s Summer Sun, and 2013’s Fade are all better “soft” Yo La Tengo albums than Fakebook — especially Summer Sun, a wonderfully bleary and genuinely immersive record that stands as one of their finest releases even though the reviews at the time were confusingly lukewarm. (My own theories: Summer Sun doesn’t have much guitar and everything’s pretty low-key — rock guys need guitars, after all — and Fakebook sees a non-country band attempting something like country, which impresses rock critics easily — Sweetheart of the Rodeo syndrome.)

Stuff Like That There, which brings Fakebook guitarist Dave Schramm and producer Gene Holder into the band’s well-since-established three-person lineup (Ira, Georgia, and bassist James McNew, here playing an upright), is Yo La Tengo’s gentlest album by far. It’s also their least eclectic, which is to say their most samey-sounding. Summer Sun wasn’t dynamically varied either, but it had color and texture — pools of it! Stuff Like That There is just as consistent, but not nearly as rich, and while lazy PR might tempt some to desperately overthink the reason why as befitting some deeper malaise in Georgia and Ira’s relationship, it seems pretty simple to me: the arrangements are too spare for this band to do much with. Georgia’s drumming, usually much subtler than people give her credit for, here spends a lot of time tapping almost mindlessly on the hi-hat; there’s no room for her to do what she’s really good at. Similarly, while Schramm’s slide guitar playing is much subtler and generally more imaginative than the cheery licks of Fakebook — there’s a striking high ring in the version of Great Plains’ “Before We Stopped to Think” that sounds like loud vibraphone resonance, and the twisty squelches in the version of Electr-o-Pura’s “Ballad of Red Buckets” (still with the hungover evening-fairground-wander vibe of the original, just not as sunburned) are wonders to behold — the approach skirts the yuppie coffeehouse sound. And I really hate to say that, especially since that’s the kind of thing people say when they’re grasping for an excuse to stop paying attention to an older band. Loyal as I am, I submit that nice sweet familiar tunes are only part of what makes Yo La Tengo special.

And yet they are a part. And therein lie the two saving qualifiers:

1. The actual choice of material here is interesting;

and

2. Georgia Hubley has a gorgeous voice, and she sings a lot here.

The choice of material here is certainly bolder than the stuff on Fakebook, which were primarily ‘60s-and-early-‘70s folk-rock or British Invasion songs. Yes, they do a Lovin’ Spoonful song here (“Butchie’s Tune”, one of the Spoonful’s many classic miniatures). But they also do a Parliaments B-side (“I Can Feel the Ice Melting”, light and jaunty but nothing compared to the dazed shimmer of the original), a Hank Williams weeper (“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), the Cure’s last actual hit (“Friday I’m in Love”), and obscurities ranging from mid-‘60s soul (Darlene McCrae’s “My Heart’s Not In It”, a song I’d never heard before and am glad I didn’t have to wait longer for) to ‘50s doo-wop (“Somebody’s In Love” by the Cosmic Rays, who I’ll remind you featured Sun Ra before he even went free-jazz) to ‘80s roots-rock (the aforementioned Great Plains song, mercifully lacking the original’s cheap-o synth and with Ira here accentuating the key line: ‘And we stopped fearing our death/That’s when we died’) to two home-base Hoboken outliers: Special Pillow (“Automatic Doom”) and Antietam (“Naples”). I could carp about the Hoboken pride stuff getting tiresome, but the fact is that the tunes grew on me.

Echoing the Fakebook approach of acoustic-izing their own songs, they do the aforementioned “Ballad of Red Buckets” as well as one of the prettier songs from one of their least-interesting albums (“All Your Secrets”, from 2009’s Popular Songs) and exhume Georgia’s buried vocal from the lo-fi electric surge of “Deeper Into Movies” (from career album I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One) to emphasize lyrics of signals spiraling into outer space as all their voices overlap, trance-like, in the long outro. Though I wouldn’t say any of the three re-workings are revelatory, the version of “All Your Secrets” did allow me to appreciate the original: not just the pretty piano and dabs of organ, not even Georgia’s do-do-do backing vocals, but the words themselves. “Tell me all your secrets/Say it slow and clear, so you don’t have to speak twice/And if there’s things that I’m afraid to know/I should have learned them years ago/Before the riot.” Not so different, really, from the key lines in “Red Buckets”: “I wonder what’s on your mind/Look around and see what it does to me.”

There are two brand-new songs, one resplendent and the other nothing special. “Awhileaway” is the inessential one; it might as well be a cover of one of the tracks from And Then Nothing…, except it’d be one of the ones that mega-fans avoid having to admit are kind of boring. “Rickety” is the prize, even if it sounds like a rewrite of I Can Hear the Heart’s “The Lie and How We Told It”: the damp mix, the bleary guitar reverb that isn’t hammered into the ground, the voices lapping over each other, the dreamlike way they sing the words “and through it all”…gorgeous, just gorgeous.

But of course none of this would be intriguing if not for the voices, and while neither partner’s voice seems to have aged a bit, Georgia’s voice is the one thing that’s thankfully accentuated by these arrangements. In a way, her humid alto stands for Yo La Tengo’s general sound: like a translucent cloud, you can see through it to the other side. But there’s something else there.

Note the version of “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”. Frankly, I’ve never heard an interpreter of that song do what Georgia does in one specific part. Hank Williams’ original recording is as simple as it gets, all in the way he stretched out the pain in his voice on the strong beats; the tune basically just swayed back and forth during the verses. But the last word of the chorus — “cry” — always returns to the root note, providing a clean finish, and because of Hank’s godlike stature there have been few singers willing to disturb that resolution. Al Green toyed and nibbled all the notes around that root and made the song his own; Little Richard leaped up and down in endless jump; Bob Dylan hit a high grace note in his stoned piano version with Johnny Cash that implied something more open-ended in the titular cry. But for the most part, people hit that note straight-on. Willie Nelson’s string-soaked version was all about those long notes; Giant Sand’s mischievous roots-rock strip-down transposes it but comes safely back to the root nonetheless. Even jazz singers like Cassandra Wilson tend to hit the note conventionally, even if they splay out the actual tone to their heart’s content. And the less said about the late-era Cash version with a typically vain and godawful Nick Cave performance, the better. But Georgia does something different. She stretches the word “cry” up to a diminished fourth (a B-flat in the original’s F major), then sinks it down a semitone, then returns to the root. I know that’s an annoyingly technical description. But the effect is like watching a light dimming out in three steps, and like Dylan’s grace note it implies something more open-ended, something that’ll continue. Like a lot of the new album, I’ve been humming it all week. And that’s something. Though as any true fan knows, it’s not everything. B PLUS