This EP is the equivalent of a Yo La Tengo yard sale, containing two alternate versions of previously released songs, a cover and two tracks recorded three years ago. Still, as anyone who frequents yard sales knows, neighborhood matters. If you want the good stuff, go where the rich people live -- and Yo La Tengo is, by songwriting and music-making standards, as rich as a band can get. Even if the band is, metaphorically speaking, cleaning out its closets here, there is a lot to like in Today Is the Day!
The album opens with the first of two self-covers, a fuzzy, Velvets-referencing version of Summer Sun's "Today Is the Day!". As in the previous take, Georgia Hubley's vocals are luminous and calm, yet whereas the original track was softly electric, here the singing floats like a slice of lemon on a roiling cauldron of feedback. Somehow, without altering lyrics or tempo, the thicker arrangement subtly changes the meaning of the song. Before, "today is the day" placidly marked an unspecified occasion, a drift toward the inevitable; here, it has a whole freightload of volition attached. You can almost hear an "or else" attached, as if today must be the day or someone will be sorry.
The same sort of forces are at work in "Cherry Chapstick" at the disc's end. On And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, this track was the lone rocker, bringing a whiff of random sex to an album that was mostly sedately gorgeous. Here, as an acoustic ballad, all the heat has turned to longing. The girl with the cherry chapstick on, and nothing more, is distant at best, a figment of imagination at worst, the image not so much erotic as sublimely, sadly wistful.
Today Is the Day! also includes two previously unreleased tracks. The sardonically witty "Styles of the Times" pits a tale of sensory overload against jauntily repetitive guitar lines that might well cause it. A highlight of the EP, it comes from Yo La Tengo's lately neglected rock band side, weaving smart pop culture against an intense wall of psychedelic drone. "Outsmartener", which follows, is also loud and slightly more dissonant, with an oddly-tuned Eastern flavor that might remind you a little of VU's "Waiting for the Man", and a wild sax solo mid-track that is equal parts Arabian nights and free jazz. The instrumental "Dr. Crash" is pleasantly loungy, blending organ, prominent bass and brush-stroked drums in a mix that gains resonance with repeat plays. It's quite similar to Then Nothing's "Tired Hippo", and since it was recorded in 1999, it may well have been part of the same thought process.
The real find on Today Is the Day!, however, is the acoustic cover of Bert Jansch's "Needle of Death". Hubley keeps it simple here, sticking closely to the original's bare guitar and stark delivery. Her vocals, however, are dreamier, more soft-focus than Jansch, giving the track, about a drug overdose, a sheen of acceptance and resolution. Whereas Jansch obviously identifies with the father and others left behind, Hubley seems to be circling in the ether above the body, about to fly home to a better place. It is a lovely track, distilling tragedy into pure liquid peace.
Today Is the Day! is much better than most between-albums rehashes. It showcases YLT's harder-rocking side and their inimitable way with covers. You might like to see a little more fresh material, but really, even this band's cast-offs are quite good. In any case, they're more than sufficient to see you through to their next full-length.