Words by Brian Salvatore
There is something nice about a band having nothing left to prove, and making records that are, seemingly, made just for them. Yo La Tengo hasn’t had to prove anything to anyone in quite some time and, so, when they decided it was time to record a sequel to Fakebook, they did so – even going as far as bringing in Fakebook collaborator Dave Schram to add electric guitar to the affair, and making bassist James McNew learn upright bass.
Sonically, as recordings, Stuff Like That There is absolutely lovely – a perfect early morning or late night record, with brushed drums, upright bass, acoustic guitar, and reverb-y electric guitar accompanying the gentle vocals through a collection of (mostly) old songs. Like Fakebook, the record is mainly comprised of covers and re-workings of older Yo La Tengo songs, and the range of songs run from the obscure to the iconic. The remakes of their own tracks, essentially, create more relaxed and mellow takes than previously recorded, especially “Deeper into Movies.” All tracks feature Schram adding his extremely tasteful lead guitar work, honed on projects like the Radio Free Song Club. In fact, that podcast/songwriter’s circle is a great sonic reference point for this record – everything sounds recorded quickly by extraordinary musicians in a comfortable space.
Comfortable is a great term to discuss the covers as well. The take on the Hank Williams classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is reminiscent of the Cowboy Junkies’ version from The Trinity Sessions, whereas “Friday, I’m in Love” sounds like the version you’ve heard in a coffee shop a few dozen times; you know, played well but with no real flair added to it. The songs the band chooses to cover are diverse, in terms of artists and time period, but all the songs covered, more or less, are covered as straight as possible with this lineup. The record, as a whole, levels out each of the songs brought to it, taking away unusual instrumentation, or anything above a low volume, and present it as a simple folk song.
And that is where the record loses me a little. There is no doubt that these songs sound great, but this is the sound of a band totally coasting, creatively. Yo La Tengo is a band that has grown and evolved and shifted so much from record to record, that it is hard to hear them do 14 songs without much variation at all – especially because they’ve pulled this exact trick before. Now, for many, that might be a perk – there’s something comforting about a cohesive record, especially one that resembles a much loved record form the band’s past – but this doesn’t feel like progress in any way. The two new songs are very nice Yo La Tengo songs (especially “Awhileaway”), and the remakes all add a fun, Unplugged/b-sides vibe.
In fact, the whole record sounds a little bit like a document of a week where the band was trying to produce b-sides for an upcoming new album. Or, perhaps, the record sounds like a band getting ready for an acoustic tour. Maybe that was the idea, and if so, they executed the idea masterfully. But for a band with as much creativity and drive as Yo La Tengo, this can’t help but feel a little half-baked. In a weird way, this reminds me of one of those cheesy “[Insert Genre Here] Goes Punk!” records, where no matter how an original song sounded, it is set to a faster beat, distorted to the hilt, and screamed in an almost identical way from track to track. While Yo La Tengo goes the other direction with these tracks, the creative impulse isn’t far off – and that’s a disappointment.
So, how do we judge Stuff Like That There? Is it to be praised for its immaculate production and playing, and simply enjoy it for being a great morning coffee record? Or do we wish the band pushed further and made something that felt more intimate and progressive? Can we do both?
‘Stuff Like That There’
© August 28th, 2015
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