Lord knows Yo La Tengo is one of the world’s best cover bands. Who else has the chops to turn the Beach Boys’ “Little Honda,” Sun Ra’s “Nuclear War,” and, uh, notorious anti-abortion activist Anita Bryant’s “My Little Corner of the World” into highlights of their very own oeuvre, live-request options in their own right? It helps that the trio’s fluency in their own expansive musical tastes makes their covers often hard to tell from their originals; 2009’s “If It’s True” could’ve come from a long-lost soul revue, while 2006’s “Watch Out for Me Ronnie” sent fans scrambling for their Nuggets track inserts. They avoid accusations of operating in their influences’ shadow because they have too damn many. And because they’re a great band.
So it’s no slight to suggest that their covers albums — this week’s Stuff Like That There marks their third — overshoot bizarrely. Fakebook from 1990 is a fan favorite but tepid; perhaps it’s remembered so fondly for establishing Yo La Tengo as an indie-rock band who doesn’t flip off their history, a band willing to reinvent their own songs without making a big deal of it. The sequel, 2009’s F–kbook, under the alias Condo F–ks, was an inversion: loud and sloppy garage renditions of classic obscurities from the Kinks to Slade. But it was too much jelly to make up for the first album’s adherence to peanut butter. (There was also 2006’s Yo La Tengo Is Murdering the Classics, a fundraiser for New Jersey’s WFMU, where they fearlessly, humorously attempted on-air requests they didn’t know, and charity overrules replayability.)
Stuff Like That There may, by a negligible margin, be the best of these albums, but it’s also the least interesting. For the first time, the song choices aren’t a deep excavation from the quicksand of their record collection (“Friday I’m in Love,” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry”), and the uniform decision to do these all in a clean format with brushed percussion and campfire acoustics is exactly what one would presume from an all-covers venture. Mixed in are new versions of old songs (“Deeper Into Movies,” The Ballad of Red Buckets”), and new tunes altogether (“Rickety,” “Awhileaway”), but nothing you wouldn’t expect from what is essentially Yo La Tengo’s never-made Unplugged episode.
Give it your dutiful few listens and there are a handful of rewards: the gliding, roomy cover of the obscure “Automatic Doom” (by their psychedelic Hoboken friends the Special Pillow) and the countrified Georgia Hubley remake of the Lovin’ Spoonful’s “Butchie’s Tune.” Yo La Tengo’s own “All Your Secrets” is rescued from the labored suffocation of 2009’s Popular Songs for a sweeter, sparser take here, and Hank Williams’ “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” is never a bad idea, even if Hubley ain’t Al Green. She may be Sun Ra though, whose Cosmic Rays duet “Somebody’s in Love” is recast here as perfectly harmonized ’60s bubblegum.
The passable new “Rickety” and the bland new “Awhileaway” are hardly what devotees of 2013’s shimmering Fade want to hear for a follow-up though, and Great Plains were a lot less attenuated than this thudding version of “Before We Stopped to Think” would suggest. “Friday I’m in Love” remains one of pop’s most enduringly beautiful chord sequences, though it feels misbegotten after the less by-the-numbers version by YLT’s post-Velvet rivals Dean and Britta. I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One fans can live without a “Deeper Into Movies” with the grime scrubbed off.
When an album called Stuff Like That There leads off with a song called “My Heart’s Not in It,” no one behind it is daring you to put it up against their best. But it shouldn’t feel like work to pick out the pretty ones from the merely pleasant ones, as archivists like Ira and Georgia should know. A stopgap does what it’s supposed to yet again; slakes the thirst for a new album just as it necessitates it anew. And there’s no better compliment to hear onstage than “Play one of your own!”