You never know quite what you’re going to get with a new Yo La Tengo record. You could be listening to ambient, lo-fi instrumentals – as with their penultimate lock-down release, We Have Amnesia Sometimes – or in the case of their latest release, a bunch of covers of songs you’ve probably never heard before.
The ever-eclectic Yo La Tengo can span anything from psychedelia, pop, indie-rock and shoegaze and always litter their live shows and albums with interesting covers from the annals of music history. Their new release Sleepless Night is a collection of similarly niche covers recorded at various locations and times in the band’s history along with ‘Bleeding’, the one original composition on the record.
The EP was initially released and created in collaboration with renowned Japanese artist and Yo La Tengo fan Yoshimoto Nara, as part of his retrospective exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Arts (LACMA). One side featured the Yo La Tengo recordings, and the other side featured the original recordings. This version of the release by Matador Records is a single-sided 12” of the Yo La Tengo performed pieces with original cover art by Nara.
Most of the covers are fairly faithful to the original recordings while still being impressed with Yo La Tengo’s understated style. ‘Blues Stay Away’, written by the Delmore Brothers in 1949, is a stock blues track approached at a slower tempo with reverb lead guitar. ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’, originally performed by The Byrds and written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King, is a jangly pop song that fits Yo La Tengo’s style so well, it could easily be one of their own compositions.
‘Roll on Babe’ and ‘Smile A Little Smile For Me’ are both slower and acoustic takes than the original recordings. The former is an older folk song covered by Ronnie Lane, which is the version Yo La Tengo are covering, sung by the band’s drummer Georgia Hubley. The latter, originally written by The Flying Machine, was recorded with a simple acoustic guitar backing.
The band also takes a diversion into ambient and psychedelic rock on ‘Bleeding’ and ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’, the Bob Dylan blues-rock track from Highway 61 Revisited, arranged by Yo La Tengo as to be completely unrecognisable as Dylan. The recording was apparently dug-out from a track they sent for a John Peel birthday show that the band forgot existed and has been exhumed for this release.
I’ve enjoyed delving back into all of the original recordings, particularly those I’ve not heard before and they are all classics. All you can ask of a record like this is for the band to leave their mark on great song choices, and they’ve done that – these songs are unmistakably and indelibly treated by Yo La Tengo. Although these tracks have been plucked from various past recordings without being specially recorded for this collection, they are all great cover choices, combined together well and results in a coherent and entertaining listen.