Yo La Tengo, now on album No. 15, seems to be perpetually in possession of the “How to Make Tastefully Intelligent Indie Rock” playbook, a sound that over the years has found inspiration in the Velvet Underground, Big Star, Neu, and just about any other act beloved by a small but feverish fan base. Here, the trio cuts loose a little, crafting a lengthy album with the free-flowing, improvisational sense of Tortoise. (The latter band’s John McEntire, an on-and-off collaborator with Yo La Tengo, mixed There’s a Riot Going On.)
Those who spend a lot of time on the Internet may have come across an advertisement or news story about weighted blankets, which can run upwards of 20 pounds or more. Proponents say they relieve stress. In this era of constant notifications and panic-inducing headlines—it’s no accident Yo La Tengo named this album after the confrontational funk of Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 masterwork—consider the chic, playfully experimental, and luminously soft music the ideal accompaniment to cuddling with a weighted blanket.
At 64 minutes, and with plenty of easygoing tangents into various styles—pop one moment, krautrock in another, and some abstract and global influences elsewhere–There’s a Riot Going On already feels like an album in search of a soundtrack. But with so many instrumental tracks, the emotional tone feels slightly elusive. Ditto the sound of Matador’s pressing, clean and smooth yet favoring ambiance over realism—and placing bass and percussion behind an invisible curtain. So, it’s a soundtrack, yes, but one suited for headphones and a stroll around an art museum.
If describing this album to a friend, you run the risk of sounding scattershot. For instance, the effortless stroll of “Shades of Blue,” marked by Georgia Hubley’s serene vocals and lyrics that find joy in sitting in silence, greatly contrasts with “Let’s Do it Wrong,” which enjoys a musical backdrop fit for a Tiki bar in the clouds all while Ira Kaplan sings self-depreciating verses at just above a whisper. Then there’s “Polynesia #1,” which veers from a tropical vibe and instead repeats a singular guitar refrain of ascending and descending notes as Hubley wishes to disappear to a paradise.
Such variances function as the norm for Yo La Tengo. Throughout its 15 songs, There’s a Riot Going On drapes everything in a studious tenor, as if the band recorded the effort for a concert held in a library. According to Matador, the album wasn’t rehearsed and the songs weren’t scripted. The music sprung from free-wheeling and casual studio sessions, with parts picked-up, discarded, and later retrieved over a span of months. While Yo La Tengo has shown its softer side before, things here are more unstructured and border on jazz—not instrumentally, but via its looseness.
”Dream Dream Away” feels weightless and fragile, its simple guitar strums giving way to spacey electronic effects and quiet, indiscernible vocals. “Esportes Casual” opts for a music-from-a-bachelor-pad feel with its shimmying and shaking keyboards. “Out of the Pool” is nearly as funky, at least until Kaplan starts sing-speaking in the manner of Serge Gainsbourg.
Just what do all the disparate sounds have to do with one another? Yo La Tengo didn’t reference a work of political activism without reason. But whereas some of the group’s contemporaries continue to get angry in our divisive social and political climate, There’s a Riot Going On seeks to disarm by downplaying confrontation.
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