Review: Yo La Tengo Pulls Up the Covers for Warmth with ‘Sleepless Night’

Yo La Tengo releases Sleepless Night - Courtesy


Since July’s We Have Amnesia Sometimes, a completely instrumental introspection, doubling as an often playful story progressing most tangibly in creative titles, Yo La Tengo released their latest work in Sleepless Night.

This EP is another creative take on their frequent musical releases as the body of work is almost exclusively made up of covers from an eclectic collection of artists with the exception of “Bleeding.” As the only original track, “Bleeding” blends in seamlessly among the works of some of the greatest musicians to live – Bob Dylan, The Byrds, and The Delmore Brothers to name a few.

Yo La Tengo has effectively verified itself as a fixture in alternative royalty, a status that has allowed them to embrace some of these more obscure projects in recent years. That being said, even their debut record, Ride the Tiger, isn’t all that traditionally alternative. Additionally, there is no shortage of covers throughout the history of their discography. Their malleable sound has successfully understudied the works of everyone from Pete Seeger to T Rex to the MC5 to Prince, perhaps establishing themselves as the only band with this much successful versatility within the strictures of a characteristic indie lull and rock dichotomy.

Yo La Tengo rehearsing – Courtesy YLT

After three decades of compounding obscure covers and original material, Yo la Tengo’s personal masterpieces now rest comfortably at legendary status next to the revival songs in their arsenal. Their newest addition to the alter of alternative royalty arrives in “Bleeding”- an experimental orchestral track with an echoing voice that is a hallmark of sonic indie. But the album’s originality is not confined to composition credits.

Moments like the strict blues guitar soloing on The Byrds’s “Wasn’t Born to Follow” would come as a bit of a surprise if you weren’t familiar with their expansive ability that strays far from the bounds of alternative echo chambers- another testament to their versatility in the music arena. However, these moments don’t compare to the shocking rearrangement of Bob Dylan’s “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry.”

Dylan’s undisputed acclaim causes his work to be frequently covered, and rarely covered well. In Yo La Tengo’s case, they approached this daunting task by making this track sound nothing like a Dylan track. In fact, this surprising method of paying tribute without a poor attempt of carbon-copying a masterpiece left “It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry” completely rearranged with the trademarks of folk music buried deep under alternative electronic lulls, echoes, and seas of synths.

This love of covers and appreciation for all the fixtures of music nobility is evidently reflected in the EP artwork for Sleepless Night which looks like a collage of names and lyrics of those who they’ve covered on this EP or just those deserving of a tribute. Some funny quips at their fellow alternative groups like inscriptions of “Blind Lemon” and some more ubiquitous odes such as a large “This Machine Kills Fascists” reminds the listener of the diverse sonic and lyrical influences Yo La Tengo is pulling from.

After all, it is quite an invigorating thing to think of an EP that has been produced with the influences of Townes Van Zandt and Roy Orbison and Zeppelin and B.B. King. At the heart of Yo La Tengo’s indie rock lore and exceptional ability to converge a multitude of aural traditions is what fuels the greatest musical endeavors: the mastery of letting the music tell you what to do.