In 1990, Yo La Tengo released Fakebook, a quiet covers album that revealed a crucial aspect of the band’s identity on record for the first time. They eschewed well-known hits on Fakebook, focusing on obscure songs by artists that were often equally obscure, like the Escorts and The Scene is Now, and included a few of their own originals, both new songs and new versions of older ones. For those who hadn’t been able to see the then-six-year-old band live before, Fakebook revealed Yo La Tengo as rock historians with a deep well of knowledge, befitting guitarist Ira Kaplan’s past as a music critic, and as musicians with the skill and restraint to put out an album of generally subdued folk-pop that never gets boring.
Stuff Like That There is an intentional follow-up to Fakebook, 25 years later and with the former fringe college radio act long installed as one of the biggest and most beloved bands in indie rock. It isn’t the band’s first covers album since 1990—the last one, 2009’s Fuckbook, was released under the band name the Condo Fucks, and is the rawest, noisiest record Yo La Tengo’s ever made. Stuff Like That There sounds nothing like that one, and intently follows the Fakebook formula, with a handful of originals and reworked Yo La Tengo classics surrounded by a number of sedate covers. The band even welcomes back Dave Schramm, who played guitar on Fakebook.
The tracklist includes two songs better known than anything from Fakebook, including a beautiful version of the Cure’s “Friday I’m in Love” that’s destined to pop up in rom-coms and commercials for years. Their take on “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” sounds cheerier than I would have ever guessed, with Georgia Hubley’s gorgeous voice, which almost always sounded sad in the past, even in upbeat songs, somehow lending an air of hopefulness to Hank Williams’ classic. (The continued growth of her voice, always the band’s most potent tool, has been amazing to hear over their last few albums.)
The rest of the record follows patterns you might already expect. They cover songs by Sun Ra (“Somebody’s in Love,” originally by the Cosmic Rays with Sun Ra and the Arkestra), 1980s cult indie rockers the Great Plains (“Before We Stopped to Think”), and ‘60s girl group singer Darlene McCrea (“My Heart’s Not in It”). The Lovin’ Spoonful’s country-rock gem “Butchie’s Tune,” which played memorably in Mad Men a few years ago, when Don Draper let creepy young Glen drive his car back to boarding school, might be the most faithful cover on here, although there’s a bit more of a swing to it that makes it more Opry-appropriate.
The revisited Yo La Tengo songs include an acoustic version of I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One’s droning noise epic “Deeper Into Movies” that foregrounds the song’s inherent beauty. There’s also a new take on Electro-o-Pura’s “The Ballad of Red Buckets” that swaps out the feedback ambience of the original with upright bass and brushed drums. Neither of the brand new Yo La Tengo songs are likely to become a classic like Fakebook’s “The Summer,” but the sultry “Rickety” successfully captures a sense of the swinging 1960s, and “Awhileaway” will soundtrack a particularly heartbreaking scene whenever Amy Sherman-Palladino gets to make a TV show again.
It might be unfair to compare this to Fakebook, a 25-year-old work by a very different band, but pitching this as a sort of sequel makes it impossible to avoid. Stuff Like That There is a sweet, graceful record, but a little slight and inessential compared to its predecessor. There’s little of the stylistic diversity found in Fakebook, as every song here has a similar slow gait and delicate, hushed production. It fades a bit into the background over its 40-odd minutes, pleasant but not especially powerful. It’s a beautiful record, and many of the songs will earn a slot on your Yo La Tengo playlists and mix tapes. As a treat for the most passionate fans, it’s a winner, but by focusing on only one aspect of the band’s identity it doesn’t register as much as almost every other record they’ve ever released.