Yo La Tengo is indie rock’s greatest chameleon. Though they are arguably a major foundational pillar of the genre, they aren’t typically the first band that comes to mind for most. And yet, that seems to be exactly what they want. They thrived for years as shadowy figures in indie rock, more satisfied existing at the periphery. As a result, they have a diehard fan base. The knowledge that their fans will support them no matter what means they have incredible freedom to explore different ideas. Going through their discography, it’s pretty clear that there is a distinct collection of sounds and styles they choose to emulate: shoegaze, noise pop, ambient, drone, garage rock, psychedelic — and on their newest EP Sleepless Night — even country. 

For someone who’s up to date on Yo La Tengo material, this EP might seem to come out of nowhere. Their previous project — released only 3 months ago — was a nearly forty minute drone album. It seems a bit strange to go straight from that to a set of down-to-earth folk country tracks, particularly in such a short span of time. However, as some fans may already know, this isn’t the band’s first venture into the genre. Even as far back as their debut, they’ve slyly included a few tracks here and there that are clearly influenced by the country aesthetic. Sleepless Night feels like they are back to that tendency but this time with a little more conviction.

Of course, since it’s Yo La Tengo, it’s never just one thing. While country does provide the main backdrop for the whole project, it’s not entirely beholden to all its conventions. The band takes liberties by adding a lot of their own sounds and instrumentations. Their aura makes it feel less like the band made country music and more like they made their own version of country music. A great example of the idiosyncratic nature of the project is in the last song, which is a cover of the song “Smile a Little Smile for Me” by The Flying Machine. The original is not even close to country, yet the band are able to give it a soft twang that makes it fit right in with the other songs on the EP. 

What is most remarkable about Yo La Tengo is their uncompromising quest to find some new musical endeavor. It’s a formula that has somehow kept them going for nearly four decades, and there are no signs that it will stop working any time soon. Their niche environment has continued their growth even to this day.

Daily Arts Writer Drew Gadbois can be reached at gadband@umich.edu 

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