“My heart’s not in it.” That’s the hook to the first track on the latest collection from veteran indie rockers Yo La Tengo. It’s a bold call for a band nearly 30 years into a recording career to put out an album largely composed of covers, including “covers” of their own songs. No matter that the line comes from a Darlene McCrea song that hinges not on apathy but on lingering love for someone lost, or that Yo La Tengo are masterful cover artists who have done the covers album thing in the past. Even a band with the skills to pull off mellow indie approximations of everything from The Beach Boys to The Cure to entire episodes of Seinfeld presumably teeters on that edge where they get too old for this shit, where the covers album becomes an amiable crutch rather than an exciting opportunity. Stuff Like That There doesn’t tip that scale, but it doesn’t do much to suggest any new insight into the iconic band or their sound. The collection is a pleasant reminder of their covering prowess, something that was likely fun to make and enjoyable for serious fans, but not much else.
Yo La Tengo first took this tack back in 1990 with Fakebook. Only their fourth album, the disc was two-thirds covers, prettying up a Daniel Johnston tune to the point that its origins and those of “Here Comes My Baby” became inseparable. Nineteen years later, Fuckbook did the covers thing under the Condo Fucks alias and got messy, rolling around in the garage. Stuff Like That There returns to the former foundation, all acoustic, smooth, and sweet. Fakebook could be seen as an exciting turn thanks to the confident embrace of both their influences and their identity; ditto Fuckbook for inverting their own process. There’s not much exciting about Stuff Like That There.
But that doesn’t mean it’s a dull listen. There are flashes of beauty in the haze, both in covers and originals. New songs “Awhileaway” and “Rickety” charm in their openhearted tenor, the latter swaying and bubbling, leaving plenty of room between lush harmonies for soloing, like a Phish song with better vocals. Georgia Hubley is particularly winning in her country turns. Her ethereal presence lingers over the moseying twang of The Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Butchie’s Tune”, while her take on Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” flutters like the whip-poor-will of its lyrics.
Digging into their own personal history and material closer to home seems to offer the best results. The take on Electr-o-pura highlight “The Ballad of Red Buckets” crackles softly. Brushed percussion and rubber tree bass imbues the song with a burn, while the plinking of the acoustic guitar gives things an almost gamelan or sitar psychedelia. “Deeper Into Movies” (from I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One) works in airy simplicity. They also work with fellow Hobokenites The Special Pillow’s “Automatic Doom”, exposing the excellent song’s layered sweetness and darkness.
An album like this doesn’t necessarily have to be exciting. It exists as a stopgap between 2013’s Fade and whatever they put out next. It’ll be nice hearing their version of The Parliaments’ “I Can Feel the Ice Melting” playing softly at a dinner party. I’ll smile when I hear their take on The Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” when I stop into a coffee shop in desperate need of a pick-me-up. But it’s unlikely anyone but diehard Yo La Tengo fans will be spinning this set with much frequency.
Essential Tracks: “Awhileaway”, “The Ballad of Red Buckets”