Yo La Tengo are full of surprises, aren’t they? Hot on the heels of summer’s We Have Amnesia Sometimes EP, which consisted of five ambient instrumental pieces, recorded on one microphone while adhering to New Jersey’s social distancing regulations, we now have Sleepless Night. Five of the six songs on this EP are covers. While nothing screams “writer’s block” louder than “reinterpretations” of other people’s material, especially following an EP of semi-improvised material, we have to cut Yo La Tengo a little slack. They’re no strangers to a judiciously chosen, ultra-hip cover version. They probably won’t burst into a rousing version of “Sweet Home Alabama” anytime soon, but if you’re looking for an angst-filled cover of a one-hit-wonder from 1969, step right up.
The thread which links all the songs on Sleepless Night is beyond tenuous. In a very Yo La Tengo move, all the songs were picked in collaboration with Japanese visual artist Yoshitomo Nara to form part of a limited-edition catalog for his Los Angeles County Museum of Art exhibit. Over 19 minutes, you get blues (“Blues Stay Away”), folk-rock (“Wasn’t Born to Follow”), rootsy Americana (“Roll on Babe”), a bit of Dylan (“It Takes a Lot to Laugh, It Takes a Train to Cry”), and pop (“Smile a Little Smile for Me”). The joker in the pack is the only original: “Bleeding”, which is a prime piece of ethereal shoegaze. And if that wasn’t eclectic enough, these recordings are harvested from all over the place in Yo La Tengo’s history. It’s like a really short mixtape for someone who works in a record store and has no attention span.