Yo La Tengo’s second release of 2020, Sleepless Nights, takes an entirely opposite route from the year’s first, We Have Amnesia Sometimes. While the latter is an exercise in the ambient, the former is one in renewing the lives of old tracks. That’s right, this is an album of covers. Sleepless Nights’ six songs consist exclusively of the revival of older folk tunes. Though “cover” is what they are, it’s a reductive term to describe a series of tracks that Yo La Tengo have truly made their own, taking part in the folk tradition’s tendency to rewrite and rebirth itself with each generation. True to its past and its influences, Sleepless Nights is an easy listen, a happy listen, and a nostalgic one.
Americana seeps through every pore of this warmly produced record. The opening track, “Blues Stay Away From Me”, is a testament to this as a simple YouTube search will bring up countless versions from the likes of Jorma Kaukonen and Bela Fleck, Doc Watson, The Everly Brothers, Les Paul and Mary Ford, and the list goes on. You can trace it back to its origins on the record Freight Train Boogie (1946) by the Delmore Brothers, a duo that even Bob Dylan has sited as a significant influence. Yo La Tengo’s version, aside from obvious advancements in production, doesn’t deviate all that much from the grooves set by the 1946 release. They’ve slowed it almost to a crawl, removed the harmonica, added some reverbed-out guitar behind the main groove, and the group of voices simmers over the mix sleepily.
Speaking of Bob Dylan, Sleepless Nights’ fourth track, “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, is a cover of his song from the great Highway 61 Revisited (1965). Unlike “Blues Stay Away From Me”, Yo La Tengo have taken a number of liberties. Easily the album’s best tune, Yo La Tengo’s “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry” is a washed-out, hazy trip of a song. Where Dylan’s is a great example of tight, swung folk-pop, this most recent iteration ditches the rhythm section all together, replaces it with a drone, and offers us an atmospheric Americana. The languid, deep vocals and pulsing bass are reminiscent of the production and overall tone behind a Brightblack Morning Light jam. If Dylan’s track is a walk through the city, Yo La Tengo’s is a swim in a pond at dusk.
In addition to “Blues Stay Away From Me” and “It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry”, Sleepless Nights features an honest rendering of a song from The Byrds titled “Wasn’t Born To Follow”, which hops and skips along in a fashion akin to something you might hear from the Grateful Dead. Longtime fans will be pleased with Yo La Tengo’s work here. It satisfies as it surprises, looks forward as it turns to look back.