Album Review: Yo La Tengo, ‘Stuff Like That There’
Throughout an illustrious, 30-year career, Yo La Tengo have never lost enthusiasm for paying homage to their musical heroes. In their live show, for example, the iconic Hoboken, N.J. trio have long drawn from a vast repertoire of cover tunes. Covers also took center stage way back on the band's fourth album, 1990's Fakebook. Conceived as a conscious nod that album, Stuff Like That There follows the same template, a mixed bag of covers and originals, only this time Yo La Tengo re-interpret some of their own vintage songs as well.
Given the range of artists represented here – Hank Williams, Darlene McCrea, the Lovin' Spoonful, Sun Ra, Antietam, the Parliaments – Yo La Tengo give this entire body of material a remarkable sheen of consistency, proving (for the umpteenth time, actually) that their style and approach to music stands entirely on its own. On paper, their countrified, Nico-at-the-rodeo version of the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love" might seem like a perfect candidate for Undercover – The A.V. Club's gratingly precious cover tune series. But Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew don't have an ironic bone in their bodies. And their genuine love for this music shines through.
All the familiar trademarks are here: gentle tempos, barely-whispered vocals and hushed harmonies. This time, though, the band re-instates original electric guitarist Dave Schramm while Kaplan moves over to acoustic. The twinkling guitars have an uncanny knack for suggesting the twang of country without pandering to stereotypes or even giving off the sense that they're intruding or wandering from their comfort zone. In fact, most of Stuff Like That There flows with the lilting ease of lullaby music, and even objectively speaking, there just isn't a better word than "lovely" to describe the band's performances on the album.
In the liner notes, Kurt Wagner of Lambchop tells an entertaining story about how every other year or so a robin builds a nest above his front porch. The most recent time, when three chicks poked their beaks out of the nest, he named them Ira, Georgia, and James. Wagner's point is obvious but begs repeating: Yo La Tengo have become one of indie rock's most reliable acts. Their perennial return has marked time as dependably as the change of seasons. It's only fitting that they should take the opportunity to look back once again – this time looking back on the way they once looked back.