Yo La Tengo have always been a peaceful, lyrical-sounding band, but the fragility level on their new album is something else. Shimmering electric guitars cuddle up against muted acoustic ones as light drumpatterings and miniature jangleriffs poke their heads in. You can hear every slip of the fingers, every dry sweep of the drums, every pebble dropped into their assembled guitar pool and every ripple cascading across the strings, and when Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan start singing in those breathy, meditative, barely audible murmurs, the whole thing threatens to float off into the air. Don’t make any sudden moves, you might tear the fabric. Just relax and let the thing wash over you; it gets prettier with every listen.
After their peak years in the mid-’90s and early 2000’s, throughout the past decade or so, Yo La Tengo’s music gradually all started sounding the same, as often happens with veteran bands struggling to find new excitement and meaning in the unique style they mastered long ago. While remarkably consistent and dependable, they slowly turned soft, faint, sliding into a warm, comfortable, complacent stasis characteristic of and/or enabled by the domestic blissworld shared by married couple Kaplan and Hubley. Stuff Like That There, the beloved Hoboken indie band’s fourteenth album, out since August, finds a neat way of escaping this dead end: it’s a cover album, their second after 1990’s Fakebook. Like Fakebook, Stuff Like That There is largely acoustic; unlike Fakebook, it also basks in the thick layers of guitar sound they subsequently learned to drench their material in, adding sly electric commentary and enjoying the resulting textural overlap. Like Fakebook, it’s a mix of known chestnuts, total obscurities, cheerful ditties, and heartbreaking ballads; they also throw in a few originals, some new, some remakes of old Yo La Tengo classics. Given the band’s reputation for being not just gifted musicians but obsessive music fans — Hubley, Kaplan, and bassist James McNew are always tinkering with genres and trying new things, plus their record collections are notoriously large, plus Kaplan worked as a rock critic before he founded the band — it’s no surprise that the cover album concept should revitalize them creatively. It’s still a quiet, hushed album, no edgier than before, revealing its secrets only when you listen carefully, whispering to you from the same small, sheltered bedroom much of their recent work seemed trapped in. But for the first time in a long time, they’ve converted their quietude into rich, extreme, tender, profoundly shameless beauty.
The symbolic setting for Yo La Tengo’s music is Hubley and Kaplan’s marriage. With each cozy, contented, affectionate song, they sing to each other — one whispering words of kindness through hissing guitar drone, the other replying via pensive strum, joining together to murmur in unison, continually engaging in an ongoing musical dialogue that serves as metaphor for an ongoing committed relationship. Where the classic/canonical couple-band setup uses the music as fighting ground, adding more and more fuel to fraught interpersonal conflict until it bursts into electrifying rock & roll flame, Kaplan and Hubley present their marriage as functional, happy, blissful even; cooing, crooning, letting the words slip away, getting so lost in the music their heads start spinning as their voices fill with daze, they really seem to adore each other. They rock out plenty, endlessly willing to fiddle with their guitars and let loose distorted amplifier waves, and after two decades as professional musicians their sweeping, wandering, homemade excursions carry a nicely reassuring air of mastery. But always they pursue a kind, cute, quavering, childlike sweetness so exquisite and vulnerable it’s almost embarrassing, so innocent and easygoing that full immersion feels almost intrusive. Whether they’re launching into guitar-noise scorchers or experimenting with lounge-exotica or relaxing the nerves with nocturnal dreamsongs (the latter especially on Stuff Like That There), soaking their instruments in dissonance or plucking out just the right little harmony or sticking to the same basic three chords, sighing or mumbling or just talking, their albums split the difference between song collection and self-sufficient musical environment, glowing with snuggly intimacy all the while.
Stuff Like That There moves softly, not sluggishly, calmly, not ponderously, expressively, not vacantly. On a solid bedrock of warm, spacious acoustic guitar, keening electric flashes and sparkles ripple and glisten (arpeggios, riffs, sizzles, amplifier belches), heightening a semblance of peaceful depth inherent in the juxtaposition of firm strumming with delicate tremolo. The resulting music is slim and sumptuous simultaneously, a rich, heavy block of sound happy to retreat into the background or repay attentive listening as you please, eagerly cultivating the illusion of friendly, communal, inspired amateurism that goes hand in hand with the strummed-acoustic format while avoiding said format’s customary musical gauntness and/or parsimony. While Hubley’s low, melodic voice dominates over Kaplan’s light, talky one, like all great Yo La Tengo albums this one evokes a conversation between both of them; they’re always chiming in, harmonizing throughout each other’s songs, their voices wrapping around each other like a double helix; there’s audible romantic devotion in the airy, sunbaked composure of their singing. Celebrating forlorn love songs and finding them everywhere from folksy ‘60s pop to obscure New Jersey indie-rock, the album plays like one of those concept mixtapes rock-nerd couples assemble together and serenade each other with: Ira and Georgia’s Favorite Relationship Ballads, Lullaby Edition. These include “I Can Feel the Ice Melting,” a very early George Clinton song from back before the Parliaments dropped their plural, “My Heart’s Not In It,” a plaintively sweet vehicle for pathos originally recorded by R&B heroine Darlene McCrea, “Friday I’m In Love,” a Cure hit and glorious blast of powerhookery here converted to a lovely stripped-down folk song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” a Hank Williams country staple here converted to a rumination on existential anxiety, a whole array of tunes by American indie-rock bands I never knew existed (Antietam? Special Pillow?), and even a few Yo La Tengo songs. But everything is unified by an elegant, trembling trademark style whose musical charms would still soothe and delight even if they didn’t so effectively capture a state of conjugal utopia.
The most striking song on Stuff Like That There is the closer, “Somebody’s in Love.” A nice little doowop song courtesy of jazz luminary Sun Ra, whose work tended louder and weirder, it sounds much more at home in Yo La Tengo’s hands — its chirpy melody was tailor-made for their voices. “Somebody’s in love with somebody/somebody’s in love with somebody,” they keep singing (before sliding into “Cheeee-da-chip-chip/cheeee-da-chip-chip/wooah ohh yeah”), and they’re telling the truth: those somebodies are named Georgia and Ira. The rare band whose escapism never sounds forced, weak, or tame, Yo La Tengo have crafted yet another welcoming sonic world, a neat little domestic corner where fans can kick back and chat with their favorite married couple. You’d have to hate monogamy deeply to resist them.