Perhaps the prototypical Yo La Tengo album, 1990’s Fakebook offered a diverse grab bag of cover songs, spanning old hits, obscure favorites, and reinterpretations of the band’s own previous work. Taking its name from bound compendiums of musical lead sheets used by gig musicians to quickly master popular songs, the album’s title also implied some measure of sham deceptiveness. In retrospect, an insinuation like this seems even more like a sly joke from a group whose greatest defining feature has been a complete lack of artiste affectation, their sturdy, married-couple-anchored lineup spurning any sign of flashy celebrity pretense. Fake rock stars playing up their normalcy as a calling card, the band continues to use covers as an opportunity to accentuate this average-Joe modesty, incorporating other artists’ material as a chance to try on different poses while maintaining their usual low-key diffidence.
Now, to mark the group’s 30th anniversary and the silver jubilee of that previous effort, comes Stuff Like That There, which can be classed as an update, a cover of a cover, or a sequel, depending on how you choose to define it. Taking its title from a song first recorded by Betty Hutton in 1944 (which itself doesn’t appear here), the album continues the band’s slippery practice of defining themselves through a mixtape-style method of cover curation, hinting toward possible influences while subverting the shape and meaning of those songs. Drawing on a diverse selection of material, all of it nudged toward Yo La Tengo’s own recognizable but hard-to-define sound, the album further establishes them as adherents to the folk tradition, serial re-interpreters who make original statements through the tweaked voices of others. In this respect, they function as a less manic descendent of shambolic avant-folk groups like the Holy Modal Rounders (whose “Griselda” they covered on Fakebook), mixing in their own new compositions (“Rickety” and “Awhileaway”) and continuing to blur the line between copies and originals.
Such diversity harkens back to a different period of musical conception, before authorship and proprietary possession were audience concerns, when songs were just raw material on which singers and groups could put their own distinctive stamp. On the surface, Stuff Like That There doesn’t seem much different from other recent Yo La Tengo efforts, from 2006’s Murdering the Classics and 2009’s Fuckbook, released under the alias Condo Fucks. But while the album seems to roll by in a gentle, slumberous haze, it also makes a clever musical statement. There’s a definite focus, for one, on culling material from acts with shifting identities; nearly all the songs here are collected from artists who were more famous in other incarnations. These span from opener “My Heart’s Not in It,” the 1964 would-be breakout single of the Cookies member Darlene McRea, to “I Can Feel the Ice Melting,” by doo-wop quintet the Parliaments, who later made their biggest mark under George Clinton’s leadership, as one half of Parliament-Funkadelic. Both songs are drained of their original fervor, turned into depressive, downtempo shuffles that maintain small cores of upbeat sweetness.
A similar effect occurs with one of the band’s own songs, as Electr-o-Pura’s “The Ballad of Red Buckets” shifts from a shaggy organ-powered dirge to something more dynamic, pinging guitar harmonics complementing the atmosphere of restless calm. In terms of more recognizable material, the version of “So Lonesome I Could Cry” frees the standard from its usual maudlin moroseness, locating the pitch-black sadness at its core, while “Friday I’m In Love” turns the Cure’s spirited original into a strangely restrained ballad. Keeping the surface changes minimal while gradually tweaking the tone of each song, Yo La Tengo manages to further their transparency and place the focus even more on the material, faking their way through another series of delicately adjusted, quietly exquisite reinterpretations.