by Jowan Mead
Yo La Tengo are the quintessential cover lovers. A cursory glance at the New Jersey sleeprock outfit’s Setlist.fm statistics informs you that the band have performed over 800 songs by other artists in their 36 years; an incredible amount by anyone’s measure. Their latest EP, Sleepless Night, ushers in autumn with five more alongside one original track, Bleeding.
The three-piece cast a nostalgic glance pre-1975 for this release’s repertoire, featuring previously recorded homages chosen by Japanese pop artist Yoshitomo Nara to be included in a limited edition catalogue for a retrospective of his work at the LA County Museum of Art. The compilation passes you an etching of Yo La Tengo at their softest, taking a hazy waltz with well-worn Americana trappings on their shoulders.
Intro track, Blues Stay Away From Me, a cover of the Delmore Brothers’ 1949 hit, sees the band strike peak languidness through its minimal arrangement. Two guitars and a constant vocal harmony proves more than enough to put across the carefree melancholy of the original. A little more aplomb is found in Wasn’t Born To Follow and Roll On Babe, penned by The Byrds and Derrol Adams respectively, although Yo La Tengo mimic Ronnie Lane’s 1974 version of Roll On Babe here. Core members, Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, take a turn each on lead vocals to great effect. Hubley’s gentle register lends a tenderness to Roll On Babe that’s absent from the original, and Kaplan does an excellent Roger McGuinn impression on Wasn’t Born To Follow, delivering faithfulness in lieu of new tricks.
The rest of Sleepless Night treads familiar ground. A version of Dylan’s It Takes a Lot to Laugh, recorded during the sessions for the band’s seminal LP, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, swaps the folk bard’s honky-tonk vibe for that album’s classic dreamlike drone tones and murmured vocals. Bleeding, the release’s one original track, spends three and a half minutes in a velvet mire reminiscent of the intro to Sonic Youth’s Teenage Riot. It’s a gentle preamble to Sleepless Night’s closing highlight – a cover of the underappreciated 1969 Flying Machine song, Smile a Little Smile for Me. While this version is stripped down in keeping with the rest of the EP, the original’s naturalistic and melodic songwriting shines through, embellished by Kaplan’s earthy lower register.
Sleepless Night is more of a nightlight listen than truly insomniac, and ties these songs together nicely for a pleasant sub-20-minute listen – one considerably more direct and engaging than the band’s ambient instrumental release, We Have Amnesia Sometimes, from earlier this year. The real joy is where it points you: the five originals referenced by this EP are all wonderful in their own accord, and absolutely worth your time.
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