I got into Yo La Tengo pretty late. Like my first record experience with them was 2009s Popular Songs. I don’t know what took me so long to jump into the Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew world, but as soon as the the nearly 16-minute album closer “And the Glitter Is Gone” ended I knew I’d just discovered something special. These indie rock elder statesmen(and stateswoman) had this knack for mixing the last 50 years of pop and rock music into this beautiful and exuberant musical haze that veered from Brill Building to the Feelies and even some ambient vibes thrown in for good measure. Kaplan was a rock journalist before starting Yo La Tengo, so he was a fan before he was an artist. That love of music comes thru on their albums.
In 2010, on a warm and sunny summer day my wife and I drove to South Bend, Indiana to the South Bend Siverhawks baseball stadium and saw Wilco with Yo La Tengo opening. As much as I loved Wilco, I think YLT won that night. There was something about just the three of them up there making so much noise, and with a gleefulness and abandon that was just absolutely inspiring. If they hadn’t completely won me over yet, after that show they had.
YLT have always mixed fuzzed-out rock with quieter moments. Seminal albums like Painful, I Can Hear the Heart Beating as One, and And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out were all a steady mix of whispered lulls and noisy pop. With 2013s Fade YLT seemed to stay mostly in the toned down mode, leaving the guitar squall of albums like Popular Songs and I Am Not Afraid Of You And I Will Beat Your Ass behind.
After five years Yo La Tengo have returned with the beautiful and airy There’s a Riot Going On. There are no guitar freakouts or feedback wars. Instead Ira, Georgia, and James keep things ethereal. From 60s pop to atmospheric noise and ambient drone, There’s a Riot Going On wants to make a statement not with a roar, but a whisper. I feel they achieve that, and in the process make one of their most beautiful records yet.
With the current times we’re living in, it seems there should be some sort of reaction from artists through their art. Regardless of whether it’s a shot of anger or a gleam of hope, something should come through. Yo La Tengo’s musical reaction is one of meditative hopefulness. Pulling the album title from a Sly and the Family Stone record, the songs on There’s a Riot Going On feel like thoughts and ideas lingering as we wake from a long sleep. Dreamy, hazy tunes like album opener “You Are Here” lopes along like a cloud making its way across the sky, while the exquisite pop of “Shades of Blue” has the sheen of a Brill Building classic with Georgia committing some serious sublime vocals. There’s some subtle psychedelic touches in the backwards guitar as well. “She May, She Might” is another low key pop track with Ira’s quiet vocals nearly overpowered by the acoustic guitar. Ira has always had more of a quieter, conversational way of singing and on this record at times it’s as if he’s almost fading into the mix as the music gains on him. “For You Too” is a quietly driving track that begs for fall days and long drives to nowhere in-particular. The buzzing bee bass line gives the song an old school YLT feel. “Ashes” has a psychedelic feel with its organ, vibes, and backwards guitar. Very low key, with just a hint of something off under the surface. “Polynesia #1” has an even lighter touch. It sounds like something you’d find on a Kinks b-side collection. Mildly country and mildly pop.
There’s a much needed escapism in ambient tracks like “Dream Dream Away” and “Shortwave”. They numb the sting of the daily FUBAR. And even though the guitar squall is at a minimum, that doesn’t mean there isn’t dense layers of music. “Above The Ground” is well constructed noise that pulls you in.
Yo La Tengo are making a statement by simply singing us songs and making us feel on There’s a Riot Going On. This album has more in common with William Tyler and Lambchop than 90s indie rock. It feels very cinematic, as if its a soundtrack to some kind of spiritual and social redemption. Whether they were thinking in those terms of headiness, I don’t know. There’s a certain regal restraint here that makes this album nearly an antidote to the steady stream of vitriol and epic bad decisions we see everyday coming through the wires. There were times I longed for the noise freakouts of past YLT albums, but here the noise freakouts have been ousted by pastoral soundscapes and brittle pop songs. We may not know what we need, but Yo La Tengo does.