Yo La Tengo is still very much staying the course on There’s a Riot Going On.
You can summarize Yo La Tengo’s career thus far into the three types of albums that the band typically makes. For starters, you have the anything-goes smorgasbord albums like I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One and Electr-O-Pura that find the band hopping from genre to genre and stretching themselves to the breaking point. You also have your oddball collections of covers that, for all their charms, are really only essential listening if you’re a massive fan of the band. Then, there are the “chill-out” records, in which the band meander and develop soundscapes without breaking too much of a sweat. This last mode is where the deceptively-titled There’s a Riot Going On fits in; it’s a decidedly mellow affair that seems to prize consistency and stability over all else.
The album’s title (besides being a wink and a nod to Sly Stone’s classic) perhaps indicated a shift in Yo La Tengo’s songwriting towards a more political bent, a move that perhaps seemed inevitable given the strange, scary times that we now find ourselves in. However, Yo La Tengo have never been about making direct statements, and any political motivations on Riot are thankfully obscured. Instead of a political barnburner, the band present a low-key, organic pop record with shades of early pop and light jazz coloring the empty spaces. Guitarist Ira Kaplan has spoken about how the album is more about coping than rebellion, and much of Riot feels alternately like a warm, comforting hug and an attempt to soothe anxieties in the back of one’s mind. It’s hard to interpret an instrumental like “Polynesia #1” as anything other than an attempt to relax, and “Shades of Blue” largely succeeds based on bouncy rhythms and innocent lyrics that recall, among other things, Brian Wilson. For the most part, There’s a Riot Going On tries its hardest to find comfort in uncomfortable times.
For the most part, the band succeeds in this endeavor; Riot is the most soothing thing Yo La Tengo have released since probably 2003’s Summer Sun. What makes Riot stand out from the rest of the band’s more subdued endeavors, however, is that Riot doesn’t feel as especially song-oriented in the way that Yo La Tengo albums typically are. Instead, the band focus almost exclusively on mood and atmosphere over melody, and the surprisingly large number of instrumental tracks only heightens this. The downside to this approach is that none of the songs really cling to one’s brain the way that Yo La Tengo’s songs have a habit of doing, which is a shame. However, the atmosphere they create is so enveloping that it lures the listener in, making the album a more interesting experience as a whole than it would be if it were just a hodgepodge assembling of songs. Yo La Tengo have made atmospheric mood pieces before, but they have rarely created something as all-encompassing as Riot often feels.
Given that Yo La Tengo are musical polymaths with the mentality of crate-digging record collectors, it’s hard to track whether the band has evolved in any way over the course of their career. Indeed, there may be some fans who may find that Riot doesn’t elaborate on anything that the band haven’t explored already. Regardless, Yo La Tengo’s desire to follow their own path–a desire earned from being indie rock trailblazers, let’s not forget–is admirable regardless of the quality of their output. In the end, Yo La Tengo are still very much staying the course on There’s a Riot Going On, but for those who already love the band, that will be more than enough.