Yo La Tengo
There’s a Riot Going On
Matador · March 16, 2018
The more I think about the title of this album, the more I love it. It’s not This Is a Riot, or Let’s Riot, or even anything as committal as Riots Are Pretty Cool I Guess. No, there’s just a riot going on. Somewhere else, probably. Is it good, is it bad? Will we ever know? We never said anything about being part of it. You can’t prove anything. Are we being detained?
All this being relevant because There’s a Riot Going On is just about the least riotous thing Yo La Tengo has ever released. The band has a small history of violent-sounding album titles (1993’s Painful and 2006’s I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass), but those older examples lived up to their names a little more accurately. Now in 2018, one of the most legitimately upsetting and potentially revolutionary years in recent history, we have been gifted this placid, sleepy-eyed, tropical haze of an album that is quite honestly exactly what I needed right now. The album title definitely jarred me a bit at first; it just didn’t fit with what I was hearing: where was the riot? But that’s just the point. Let the riot go on outside! We’re going to have a lovely time somewhere else for a while.
Every track on this album is an escape or a sidestep of some kind. ‘Polynesia #1’ is a breezy tune about… going to Polynesia, which vocalist Georgia Hubley proceeds to rhyme with “leisure,” if that tells you anything more about the tone of this record. There’s a lot of unconcerned uncertainty here (‘She May, She Might’), and a nice dose of throwing up your hands and just not bothering anymore (‘What Chance Have I Got’). There’s even a jaunty little elevator music track, which I am requesting in my will to be the theme music for the upcoming sitcom about my life. There’s a Riot Going On is sad and defeated, but it finds a way to stay sunny, as if willfully ignorant of all the messed-up shit going on outside.
Musically, we find ourselves in prime Yo La Tengo territory, an odd confluence of indie rock, shoegaze, and drone music. You’ve got your fuzzy, verbed out guitars, your off-kilter keyboards and delicious bass riffs, and plenty of latin-esque percussion keeping the whole machine running smoothly. But this time, it’s been toned down to a whisper. It’s not like their music was particularly overstated before – I’m not sure singer Ira Kaplan’s voice has ever risen above a murmur – but this time the arrangements are dreamy and spare throughout. The guitars don’t get too distorted, and the tempos are restrained, stately even. There are no less than 15 minutes of ambient instrumentals smack dab in the middle of the album, and they’re all gorgeous. This is music to listen to in a hammock. If you’ll pardon an overwrought music-journalist metaphor, each song on There’s a Riot Going On is a like a little ocean, stretching out before you in ways that are, if not surprising, then at least dazzling in their degrees of gentle, sparkling variation.
The trio has always excelled at whipping up a great groove and then just rolling with it. The first few seconds of any given YLT song are seldom very different from the last, and instead of piling on new ideas, they pick a really good one and just let it slowly unfurl. Take my personal favorite track as an example: ‘For You Too’ is probably the fastest and grimiest track on the album, which isn’t saying a lot. Propelled by a shuffling motorik drumbeat and powerful fuzzy bass, it ambles along at about half the volume you would expect, content to drift through a sublime chord progression with a minimum of fury and a maximum of chill. Closer “Here You Are” is probably the best way to encapsulate all that’s been said about this record so far. It’s long, it’s repetitive, it’s dreamy, quiet, melodic, richly textured. Most of all, it’s grounding; here you are, indeed, and panicking about that fact isn’t going to change it. Take a quiet moment for yourself, already. You can’t be rioting all the time.