Essential New Music: Yo La Tengo’s “Sleepless Night”

If you’re a player, it’s handy to have a few high cards hidden up your sleeve. But you also need to know when to pull one out. Among Yo La Tengo’s gifts is understanding when to pivot and having good instincts about what to do next. Like so many bands, the trio’s touring options shrank to near zero when COVID-19 hit, and YLT didn’t have a new album ready to go. Far from stymied, the group laid down a couple cards that keep it in the game, both creatively and commercially.

First Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew turned the band into a pandemic pod, convening behind closed doors to record an album of instrumental jams called We Have Amnesia Sometimes. And now they’ve followed it up with Sleepless Nights, a one-sided EP with etched artwork by McNew and six songs—one original, five covers—that were originally included on an LP that you could only get with a high-priced catalog for an exhibit by contemporary artist Yoshitomo Nara.

If you’ve caught Yo La Tengo in concert, there’s a good chance you’ve heard the band wield feedback like machetes to carve its way through one of its longer songs, then ease the tension at the perfect moment by slipping in an ingratiating, acoustic performance of a country song or an indie obscurity. Or maybe you’ve seen YLT warm a crowd’s hearts just before time to say goodbye by playing a song that the band and the audience hold in mutual esteem. Yep, these guys know when to play ‘em, and while Sleepless Night is short, it has enough aces in hand that if you laid them all down at once, you’d out yourself as a cheat. 

The Delmore Brothers’ “Blues Stay Away From Me” comes thoroughly tested; NRBQ, the Band, Louvin Brothers and many others have played it. Yo La Tengo—augmented by a couple of friends from Lambchop—strikes just the right balance of bitter and sweet. The country vibe turns cosmic on a fairly faithful version of the Byrds’ “Wasn’t Born To Follow,” a song so perfect in its original form that anyone would be mad to mess with it. Next come a couple tracks voiced by Hubley. She adds an extra dollop of melancholy to “Roll On Babe,” a song from the first LP by Ronnie Lane’s Slim Chance, and eases the pugnacity of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry.” The sole YLT original, “Bleeding,” is long on atmosphere, with dreamy harmonies floating through layers of heavily reverbed guitars. Kaplan finishes things off with another classic YLT card track: an unabashedly sincere rendition of an old pop song, in this case “Smile A Little Smile For Me” by one-hit wonder the Flying Machine. 

So far, Yo La Tengo’s recorded response to 2020 is two for two. Hopefully, things will ease soon, but if they don’t, want to bet the band has another ace to play?

—Bill Meyer