Release Date: Mar 16, 2018
Record label: Matador
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
A lot is made of Yo La Tengo's love of a cover version. Sir Douglas Quintet. Sun Ra. The Rutles. The Parliaments. From 1990's impeccable Fakebook through to 2015's Stuff Like That There via covers-only Hanukkah sets and "anonymous" Condo Fucks albums, the knowledge and love the Hoboken indie-rock ….
It's something of a riddle to decipher the duplicitous nature of Yo La Tengo. On the one hand, the longstanding Hoboken, New Jersey trio have guided others in contemplation with their eased-up, polite discourse. On the other, they've behaved like middle-aged smart alecks who can alienate anyone with their clever ripostes. There's an undeniable charm in how they handle their business with a nonplussed sense of comfort.
Writing about Yo La Tengo is difficult, in the same way as writing about any band that's been going for over three decades is difficult. What is there to say that has not already been said? The problem is perhaps rendered more acute in the case of this one - very special band - than in other similar cases. One can always find more ways to heap praise on the shape-shifting brilliance of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, to express tentative excitement about a new Flaming Lips record, or to disparage Metallica for their own particular brand of self-delusional redundancy.
The origins of There’s A Riot Going On, the 15th release by Yo La Tengo, were quite different to its predecessors’. There was no decamping to the studio, armed with songs, ideas or a general desire to play together and see what ensued. Instead, it was a relatively unplanned event, pieced together from pre-existing recordings, semi-formed songs and film soundtrack works-in-progress.
Much like when Sly & The Family Stone first proclaimed the same message, There's a Riot Goin' On, in 1971 in response to Marvin Gaye, Yo La Tengo find themselves relaying the same message 47 years plus later. The legendary Hoboken, New Jersey trio have seen plenty in their over 30 years as an active band, Reaganism, wars in the middle east, voting controversies, but perhaps nothing like the current era we find ourselves in today. Yo La Tengo's 15th full-length album sees the core trio Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew exorcise their collective anguishes at the world in long, drawn-out jam sessions that eventually became this record.
New Jersey's foremost indie auteurs have always managed to find that fine line between obtuse experimentation and pastoral pop, one that sometimes makes Yo La Tengo's intents difficult to unpack but enticing enough for added interest. For some, There's a Riot Going On will likely further blur the lines between dreaminess and delirium, but given its low-lit haze, the atmospheric climate and the throbbing percussion that churns and gurgles throughout, that affable approach never wavers. Longtime stalwarts Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew supposedly recorded it all spontaneously and without premeditation, suggesting they were in a decidedly reflective mood throughout the process.
Ira Kaplan witnessed the rock era from a close vantage: He watched the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan"; was picked up hitchhiking in the early 1970s by Arlo Guthrie; was a regular at punk institutions CBGB's and Max's Kansas City; wrote for pioneering zine the New York Rocker; and with his wife Georgia Hubley as Yo La Tengo, he witnessed indie rock slowly coalesce and eventually corporatize. Since adding James McNew in the early 1990s, Yo La Tengo have singularly defined American indie rock, merging their sui generis suburban psychedelia with a record collector's urge to re-animate rock history and a mordant sense of humor about the inherently silly nature of their chosen profession. So when an interviewer recently asked Kaplan why the band named their 15th album after Sly and the Family Stone's epochal, deeply political 1971 LP, Kaplan's droll reply was perfectly on-brand: "To run away from your question as fast as possible, I think a lot of the things we do just feel right and don't get articulated.
The Sly and the Family Stone nod of the title turns out to be more than just a wink, as the press kit identifies similarities between the fraught political climate during the creation of both records. Yo La Tengo 's reaction to the troubling times we live in? Creating a pillowy, lush record that veers more towards the dreamier side of their supple sound - a dream-pop record for a near-dystopian world. The motorik shoegaze of "For You Too" highlights Ira Kaplan's soothing, balmy voice on top of fuzzy bass and a pulsing beat.
When Yo La Tengo revealed that the title of their 15th album would be There's a Riot Going On, speculation ran wild among their online fan base. What did the title mean? Was the album going to be a broadside about the state of America in the Trump era? Was it going to be some sort of homage to Sly & the Family Stone's troubled 1971 masterpiece There's a Riot Goin' On? Or were these die-hard record collectors simply tipping their caps to the Robins' 1954 hit "Riot in Cell Block #9"? What no one seemed to guess was a band that's made a habit out of inscrutable album and song titles would simply be continuing in that great tradition. As it is, there's precious little that's riotous about 2018's There's a Riot Going On -- quite the opposite, it's one of the most languid and inward-looking albums Yo La Tengo have released to date.
The thing about late-career resurgences is that bands have to stick around long enough to see them happen. Yo La Tengo have been kept afloat over more than three decades together by a dedicated cult fanbase, and there's plenty of debate among that faction to be had over the merits of the New Jersey trio's fourteen studio albums to date. To most casual observers, though, the group probably peaked in the late nineties, with standout LP 'I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One' in 1997 and its follow-up, 'And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out', three years later.
Yo La Tengo’s finest slow tracks find power and a degree of freedom in the slow and scaled-back, in long, languid instrumental ostinatos, in mantric progressions, in Ira Kaplan’s whispered falsetto and Georgia Hubley’s disarming tenderness. Good examples of this can be found throughout the band’s career, whether it be on brilliant early albums Painful (“Big Day Coming,” “The Whole of the Law”) and Electr-O-Pura (“The Hour Grows Late,” “Don’t Say A Word [Hot Chicken #2]”), the excellent And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out (“Tears Are In Your Eyes,” “Last Days of Disco”), or the solid, more recent Fade (“Two Trains”). These tunes, although sedate, are texturally rich and emotionally magnetic, hitting with as much force as the tidal waves of reverb and feedback heard in clear influences Sonic Youth and My Bloody Valentine.
It is, perhaps, time to come to terms with the fact that Yo La Tengo will never write another "Cherry Chapstick." The last several albums, indeed, have gradually turned down the temperature, burying voice, guitar, keyboards under a slumberous blanket of fog. There may be a tambourine jangle to kick these songs into something approaching motion, but the later albums have lived in a luminous, eternal, pastel-colored unchanging now. There's a Riot Going On is Yo La Tengo's 15th album, recorded in extended improvisation sessions at the band's rehearsal studio with no prepared songs and no outside input.
They phoned this one in. It’s tempting to just call it a sketchy EP of leftovers stretched to an hour’s length—and it is that—but it’s also just Summer Sun without the songs. Like Summer Sun, there’s more ambience, more general keyboard and synth blear ….
The most vulgar thing about Yo La Tengo's latest is its nod to Sly and the Family Stone's 1971 landmark: on the Hoboken trio's fifteenth album there's no riot, and there's nothing going on--at first. Fans expecting the freakouts of yore will instead hear a series of tranquil undulations, notably in the second third of this hour-long album. Quiet has rarely sounded this fraught.
Already wanting to escape the shit show which is 2018? Then, boy, has Yo La Tengo got a treat for you! The 15th studio album from these critical darlings is a soothing balm for the anxious. Sweet novocaine for the soul. A shimmering cloud to happily get lost in for an hour. It is, as any indie fan would imagine, a pretty chilled affair, but one with a few surprises up its sleeve.