Yo La Tengo “Sleepless Night” EP (Matador, 2020)

Yo La Tengo return with an EP collaboration with artist Yoshitomo Nara, to accompany his major retrospective at LACMA. Two decades ago when they first met, he was the fanboy. Whilst they have continued to churn out eclectic random product which keeps them at cult status, Nara’s last painting sold for $25M. He wanted a vinyl compilation to be supplied alongside the full catalogue for the exhibition. On one side he chose six originals of his favourite late 60’s/early 70’s folk artists, and for the flip, he asked the band to contribute one original and five covers from the same period.

Now you genuinely never know what you are going to get from Yo La Tengo – their last release for instance was just random studio instrumental doodling – but for this they have played relatively straight. The original track ‘Bleeding’ is pleasant and instantly forgettable, and the five covers are retrieved rather than newly laid down. ‘Blues Stay Away From Me’ was arranged for them by Kurt Wagner and William Tyler in Lambchop days when in Nashville. The lesser track from ‘Highway ‘61 Revisited’, ‘It Takes a Lot to Laugh…’ had been recorded for John Peel. ‘Wasn’t Born To Follow’ has Dave Schramm on guitar.  All decent but unremarkable. ‘Smile A Little Smile For Me’ was a big hit in the USA for Flying Machine in 1970, but is shamefully little covered as it is a lovely song. Ripe for some delay/distortion guitar crunch and vowel mangling – it would be ideal for an Oasis reunion – Yo La Tengo do an essentially pointless straight gentle copy. The best track is ‘Roll On Babe’, itself a cover when on the first album by Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance. Yo La Tengo are faithful to Lane’s version, but nowhere near as good. Not surprising when you realise Lane’s backing band on that album were essentially Gallagher and Lyle!

A slight product overall, but very worthwhile as it makes you go back and check out all the originals.

Unessential covers EP that acts as useful signpost

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