Yo La Tengo Look Back to Move Forward With 'Stuff Like That There'

Yo La TengoEXPAND
Yo La Tengo
Photo by Dusdin Condren

For Yo La Tengo — staunchly independent rock stalwarts, human-jukebox monolith, proud wavers of the Hoboken flag for three decades, and one of the last of the elder statesmen left standing in the wake of Sonic Youth's dissolution — 2015 has been a year of both sea change and reminiscence. There was the news that the pride of Hoboken, guitarist/singer Ira Kaplan, and his drummer/angel-voiced wife, Georgia Hubley, had jettisoned the New Jersey city with which they've been synonymous and crossed the river for Manhattan digs. On the phone, Kaplan plays it low-key when it comes to their move: "One step ahead of the sheriff, like anyone else."

He's more psyched to talk about Stuff Like That There, a new Yo La Tengo record that nonetheless represents a dip into the band's storied past. An eclectic set of cover songs, reworked tunes from their sprawling catalog, and a couple of fresh originals, Stuff is vintage Yo La Tengo minus Kaplan's trademark guitar freak-outs and organ-fueled drone-fests. As Kaplan admits, they carefully dialed back 25 years for inspiration. "We really did go full-concept on the record."

Kaplan traces Stuff's lineage to Fakebook, their unplugged fourth record from 1990, which found Yo La Tengo geeking out on a glorious hodgepodge of classics and bargain-bin obscurities from the likes of Cat Stevens, Daniel Johnston, the Kinks, NRBQ, the Scene Is Now, and John Cale.

Using Fakebook as their live-feel blueprint, Yo La Tengo went about re-creating the harmony-driven beauty, ghostly textures, and back-porch-jam vibes of their breakthrough record. They returned to the same Hoboken recording studio; original producer Gene Holder again manned the boards. Longtime electric-bass player James McNew took the upright-bass reins. Guitarist Dave Schramm was welcomed back into the fold, and Kaplan traded in his electric for an acoustic guitar. Kaplan had no problem yielding the steel-strung spotlight once again to Schramm, whose fretboard handiwork is all over Yo La Tengo's roots-rocky, Feelies-inspired 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger.

"It wasn't like, 'Oh, finally I get this damn electric guitar off,' " Kaplan says of slinging only the acoustic on Stuff and expanding into a quartet. "Dave is just a great guitar player, and it's fun. It changes the whole dynamic. The difference between three people and four people, it's pretty shocking at times. The three of us have done so much together for so long, it kind of makes sense to introduce somebody else into it. Everything changes."

Indeed, in Yo La Tengo's universe, changes are well afoot: Kaplan and Hubley left Hoboken behind; the legendary indie-rock hub Maxwell's, where their annual Hanukkah shows became the stuff of legend, is now a restaurant; and Schramm is back in the fray, at least for the moment. But this much is certain: The stripped-down Stuff, their fourteenth record, is classic Yo La Tengo in all its sublime dream-folk glory.

A record collector's coup that only music buffs like Yo La Tengo could have whipped up, Stuff's grab bag of covers is a virtual Music History 101, and Hubley's star turn on it is liable to melt hearts. On Hank Williams's "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," her sultry whispers transform the timeless beer-soaked tearjerker into a gorgeous bedtime lullaby. She takes the doo-wop strut of "My Heart's Not In It," by r&b queen Darlene McCrea, and imagines it as a countrified stroll (Schramm's homegrown twang doesn't hurt the cause). And on the R.E.M.-ish jangle of the Cure's "Friday I'm in Love," her delightfully morose delivery — and the hilarious, apocalypse-themed video that goes with it — would roust even Robert Smith from his doldrums to crack a smile.

"It's a song we've done a couple of times over the years but in more of an electric arrangement," says McNew of the Cure's mopey pop hit from 1992. "I think we all kept it in the backs of our minds, thinking that we could do it again and that it could fit in nice among the other songs on this record."

While Yo La Tengo's knack for pulling covers out at will is to die for (check out Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics, their all-covers collection captured live at WFMU's annual pledge drives), it's their reinterpreted songs, such as Fakebook's "Barnaby, Hardly Working" (taken from '89's President Yo La Tengo), that are something to behold. Stuff Like That There continues the trend, stripping the fuzzy noise from their own "The Ballad of Red Buckets," "Deeper Into Movies," and "All Your Secrets" and giving them the magically quiet treatment of Schramm's piquant riffs, Kaplan's delicate strums and chugs, Hubley's brushed backbeats, and McNew's beefy rhythms.

"We've tried a bunch of them and those were the ones we felt like recording," Kaplan says of the revamped tunes that made it onto Stuff. "Since we've been rehearsing for the tour, we've worked out a ton more. At least a couple of them, we were like, 'Hmmm, that's an interesting version. Maybe we should have or will record some more.' " Kaplan notes that two takes that benefited from this experimentation, an acoustic try at "Deeper Into Movies" and a guitar-laden "All Your Secrets," were particularly apt examples of this different approach.

For McNew, Stuff presented a challenge of sorts. Not yet a Yo La Tengo member when Fakebook was released (his debut was on 1992's May I Sing With Me) but a fan who originally bought the record and caught the tour, McNew knew that Al Greller (of the Schramms) played the upright bass on Fakebook. Since Stuff was to be Fakebook's companion piece, McNew wanted to uphold tradition. Thing is, he had never handled an upright bass before. Kaplan didn't expect that his bandmate would start from scratch and put himself through (self-taught) upright-bass school.

"It's crazy," Kaplan recalls. "When we were talking about doing this record it was the assumption on Georgia and my part that we'll do it with electric bass this time. You know, it's not like we're asking to learn how to play upright bass. And James was like, 'Well, I did!' " McNew admits to being nervous as a full-scale tour awaits — one for which the upright will be his instrument of choice. "I know I'm not supposed to say that, but yes, I am [nervous]. I'm more excited than anything else. It feels so cool to be in uncharted territories. There's a weird excitement that comes with this sort of inner feeling. It's somewhere between terror and excitement. We'll see what happens."

What will happen at Flatbush's majestic Kings Theatre on October 10 promises to be a bash worthy of Yo La Tengo's much-missed Hanukkah shows. They'll tap into a healthy swath of songs from their pioneering 31-year arc, offering covers galore and reimagined originals in an all-acoustic format. Just don't expect a sequel to Stuff Like That There anytime soon. According to Kaplan, it may take awhile:

"Set your alarm for 25 years."

Yo La Tengo headline the Kings Theatre for an acoustic set on October 10. For ticket information, click here.

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