Yo La Tengo said they would never record another album like Fakebook. Now the New Jersey indie rock trio have Stuff Like That There.
“The more long feedback guitar songs we play at a show, the more people ask, ‘Have you ever thought about making another record like Fakebook?’ and the answer was always, ‘No, we haven’t thought about it,’ in that way where you get more defensive when someone suggests you do something,” Ira Kaplan says over the phone. He chuckles. “As years have gone by, it seemed maybe we should. The three of us have continued to play quietly, play cover songs, and play folk-oriented music as we do. With Fakebook, George and I stockpiled a bunch of songs and figured we would record them. I had all these songs and it felt natural to do it again – and interesting to us to consciously revisit something which I don’t think we had ever done like this.”
It’s been 25 years since Fakebook, Yo La Tengo’s album of acoustic covers and downtempo numbers, dropped. It’s only now, decades later, that guitarist Ira Kaplan, drummer Georgia Hubley, and bassist James McNew were ready to try a second take. After all, when you frequently play your own songs in various reworkings and genres on tour, shifting into the folk mode of your past self becomes less difficult, if at all. So Stuff Like That There successfully dives into that with covers of their own songs in addition to others’, ranging as deep as Hank Williams’ classic “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and The Parliaments’ “I Can Feel the Ice Melting”, with the usual heart Yo La Tengo stitch in their own fashion.
“[Covering our own songs] is something we do in a sense all the time,” Kaplan explains. “When we record a record, we never think about how the songs will sound live. We record songs the way it seems to make sense, and then, when we’re done, start contemplating playing live and re-learning them—or, in some sense, learning them for the first time because of the nature of multi-track recording—where we’re, in effect, covering it.”
As they worked on the record, songs that began as folk songs pushed farther for new depth. It’s a matter of engagement. “We would get tired very quickly if we did everything from memory,” Kaplan says. To add variety, they brought old pal Dave Schramm on board, the country-styled guitarist who joined them on Fakebook. Live, the pairing isn’t too uncommon. In the studio, Schramm hasn’t been present since 1990.
The most notable difference on the album comes from McNew’s move to upright bass in place of electric. “When we were talking about doing this record, George and I were saying to James, ‘Well, you know, we’re not expecting you to play upright bass because… you don’t play upright bass. We’re not expecting you to learn,’ and he goes, ‘Well, maybe I should learn!’” Kaplan says. “We were shocked. That was totally unexpected and it’s one of the real exciting things about rehearsing right now, trying out a new song and hearing him on that bass.” Electr-O-Pura cut “The Ballad of Red Buckets” breathes deep with that acoustic swap, starting things off with the deep, isolated plunges of his strings . For diehard fans, it’s an exciting tradeoff that they can finally hug close long after a live show.
The whole LP kicks off with a rendition of Darlene McCrea’s “My Heart’s Not In It”, shining some light on the talent of The Cookies and The Raelettes. “I’m the more obsessive girl group fan in the band,” Kaplan laughs when asked why they chose that track. Twice over the last few years, Kaplan and Schramm played as a house band for girl group tribute shows, including She’s Got the Power! at Lincoln Center in 2011 beside Maxine Brown, Ronnie Spector, the late Lesley Gore, and LaLa Brooks. “Margaret Ross from The Cookies was on those shows. We didn’t do that song, of course, but we did ‘Don’t Say Nothing Bad About My Baby’. Also, this incredibly beautiful song called “I Never Dreamed”. Ross Titelmen definitely wrote it. That was a magical experience, being in the band while these incredibly unsung women from the ‘60s were doing what they do so amazingly.”
Their most faithful cover comes from the most absurd act: Sun Ra. “Somebody’s in Love” comes from their singles collection—an amazingly wide-ranging assortment of material, even for them—that’s essentially a doo-wop song. Chances are it sounds familiar. Of all the songs on Stuff Like That There, it’s the one they pull out most often at the end of a show. “It was interesting that even though it seemed pretty similar to the version we’ve already done, just adding Georgia on drums and switching James to upright bass led me to adapt the singing a little bit as well as my guitar part,” says Kaplan. “That song was surprising in that we thought we already knew that one. We wound up relearning it instead.”
Reading the liner notes of Stuff Like That There begins to feel like a game, quizzing your knowledge of artists that run the gamut based off their soft, lush covers. That’s the record’s humblebrag: for hosting such a wide range of genres, everything manages to sound distinctly folk, distinctly story-like, distinctly Yo La Tengo. “At this point, we’re just confident that our personality comes out unconsciously,” says Kaplan. “There’s songs that we will play live that we probably wouldn’t record. We like doing that live because we want every show to be different, for people to return again and again and not see the same set, and something unexpected like that fills that purpose. When you put it on a record, it’s only unexpected one time. After that, there it is, the fourth song on side two, right where it will always be.” Luckily, the album doesn’t feel planned several listens in. A return to their folk days is still a surprising treat to hear, even if it can now be queued up in a moment’s notice.
YO LA TENGO W/ DAVE SCHRAMM. SAT 10.3. THE WILBUR, 246 TREMONT ST., BOSTON. 8PM/ALL AGES/$30. THEWILBUR.COM.