For their 15th studio album, beloved indie-rock adventurers Yo La Tengo try to make sense of the world with the Sly and The Family Stone-referencing There’s A Riot Going On. April Clare Welsh reviews a blissful, detailed album that’s resplendent with calming properties.
Yo La Tengo’s new album nods to the Sly and The Family Stone. Their classic There’s A Riot Goin’ On captured the gloom and chaos of 1971 and advocated getting high as a response to the impending apocalypse. Over 45 years later, there’s a still a riot going on that implores artists to respond however they see fit. In 2018, US indie trio YLT are using music as a form of refuge in a similar way as their funk idols, although presumably unaided by psychedelic drugs. “For us, the record is about coping,” band member Ira Kaplan told Paste about an LP that compounds the group’s predilection for soothing soundscapes into a 15-track tonic bubbling with therapeutic power.
Comprised of multi-instrumentalists Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley and James McNew, Yo La Tengo have made quiet, widescreen indie one of their sonic calling cards. From ‘The Pain of Pain’, featured on the band’s 1986 debut Ride the Tiger, through 1995’s ‘Blue Line Swinger’ – a nine-minute epic that holds cathartic properties in its strategic use of tempo – and 1997’s ‘Green Arrow’ – where weeping slide guitar is even more potent than an Ambien, their repertoire is resplendent with calming properties. And while YLT’s 15th album may not be packed full of standout singles, it can provide shelter from the storm for over 60 minutes of headphones-designated bliss.
‘You Are Here’ introduces There’s A Riot Going On with the kind of droney, driving guitars that the band have unknowingly earmarked for long car journeys down wide, empty roads, while the sprinkle of bells sound like Christmas. For what it’s worth, the LP’s timing – released just a few days ahead of the spring equinox in the northern hemisphere, feels poignant. Yo La Tengo have often seemed in tune with the seasons – even choosing to name their 2003 album Summer Sun (which coincidentally feels closest in kin to this one) – and There’s A Riot Going On drifts along like a cloud of apple blossom on the breeze.
But rather than extol the benefits of going outdoors, there’s a stay-at-home, inward-facing feel to the band’s first album of original material in five years. “I’m painting my room to reflect my mood / facing my feelings for life without you,” sings Hubley on the dreamy lullaby ‘Shades Of Blue,’ one of the LP’s most ’60s pop-minded tracks. “Not now not today / got you in its sway / She may, she might, for now, prefer to spend the day inside,” chimes Kaplan on ‘She May, She Might’. Picking up where the former acoustic idyll left off, backmasking glimpses the band’s knack for nuanced effects and Kaplan’s vocal – into which Hubley’s voice blends seamlessly – reminds of the duo’s chemistry; Hubley and Kaplan have been married since 1987.
“Most days, we circumvent / tune out the world / except our friends,” continue Kaplan and Hubley on the collage-like cut ‘Here You Are’. Splicing recorded speech with hand percussion and creaking, time-stretched guitar, its lyrics point both to a long-term relationship and state of mind, which carries over to ‘Forever’: “Laugh away the bad times / Lie about what’s to come / the less said, the better /Let’s drink until we’re dumb.” Despite the occasional glimmer of defiance -“There ain’t nobody about to tell me/ How to take my liberty” on ‘Polynesia’, for example – the album prioritizes escapism over action, much like its Sly and The Family Stone namesake.
There’s A Riot Going On is impeccably detailed, pouring every burst of hand percussion, every strand of gossamer guitar, every bass echo, every keyboard ditty into a hermetically-sealed underground bunker. This is even more impressive considering the band’s production method for the album, having pieced it together themselves in the recording studio from jam session scraps.
At times, however, some of these sketches feel so thin and whispery that they almost threaten to evaporate into air. ‘Let’s Do It Wrong’ recalls the jazz improv filler of Summer Sun track ‘Nothing But You And Me’, ‘Dream Dream Away’ faintly resembles a Grizzly Bear cast-off and ‘Shortwave’ could be a delicate ambient interlude, but it’s overshadowed by the feeble and unnerving rumble of distant bass. However, these are just blips on the horizon of what is fundamentally a solid and topical album from one of indie-rock’s most inventive bands. There’s A Riot Going On certainly won’t light a fire in your belly and if you’re looking for provocation, you’ve come to the wrong place. But perhaps we all need to plug in and take stock every once in a while.
As Yo La Tengo approach their fourth decade, they’re a rare breed: a peak ‘90s who band who don’t rely on nostalgia for currency. With There’s A Riot Going On, Kaplan, Hubley and McNew prove that they can do relevance and reliability in equal measure, and where their contemporaries may have burned years ago, Yo La Tengo’s low-key flame continues to flicker.
April Clare Welsh is a writer at FACT. Find her on Twitter.