Album Review: Yo La Tengo - There's A Riot Going On

They’ve been a band for 34 years, performing with the same line up for over 25 of those years, so is now the right time for Yo La Tengo to release a precocious, incredibly experimental record?

It isn’t like they’ve always been a straightforward act—but their fifteenth album, There’s A Riot Going On—a collection of dense, unconventional songs, happens to arrive five years after1 what may be one of their shortest and easiest to comprehend—2013’s Fade.

A bulk of Yo La Tengo’s canon, specifically beginning in 1997 with I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, are structured around the band finding the balance between catchy and concise ‘pop’ songs, feedback laden guitar theatrics, moody, somber slow burning experimentalism—and everything in between.

Assembled slowly over the course of the last three years, and pieced together from a decade’s worth of recorded but unused ideas and sketches, now looped and manipulated alongside new bits created while the band was learning an updated Pro Tools interface, There’s A Riot Going On is a lot to unpack and process. Sprawling itself across 64 minutes, there are moments where something moderately catchy materializes, though there’s no clear song that screams ‘single,’ and throughout, there are a number of atmospheric instrumentals that both keep the album moving forward while, at the same time, weigh it down.

It’s the kind of inward, pensive, and personal listen that unfolds very deliberately, intended to be consumed as a whole—and, dare I say it, is best suited to be a ‘headphone record.’

Despite the slightly confrontational, political title (yes it is a reference to the Sly and The Family Stone album of the same name), there is nothing found within There’s A Riot Going On that could be considered as ‘explosive’ as the band is capable of being. There’s dissonance, sure, but’s all very reserved and controlled this time around—perhaps a sign of the band’s age (guitarist Ira Kaplan is now over 60), or perhaps bursts of feedback and nervy, sloppy, indie rock fuzz is not what Yo La Tengo was going for here.

There’s A Riot Going On is, as you can anticipate, a very slow moving record—but not in a bad way. There’s no point during it when it tests your patience, and since it is meant to taken as a whole, you just kind of let it go, knowing that it’ll come to its conclusion when it is good and ready. Opening with the slow burning instrumental, “You Are Here,” the first voice you hear is during the second track, the very strummy and jangly, yet kinda sad “Shades of Blue,” sung by percussionist Georgia Hubley.

After a calculated opening, the album begins to gain some momentum with a more ‘traditional’ sounding Yo La Tengo song, on “For You Too”—a kind of feeling they opt not to tap into again as There’s A Riot continues, allowing the record to delve back into its moody instrumentals and other assorted sonic experiments, like the cacophonic, pulsing rhythms of “Above The Sound.”

That is to say it doesn’t stay away from familiar Yo La Tengo territory—there is the back to back double shot of “Let’s Do it Wrong” and “What Chance Do I Have,” both of which feature the band’s trademark, whimsical, dusty sounding drum machine—on the former, it’s used in a slightly more jaunty fashion; on the latter, it simmers in somberness.

There’s A Riot Going On is an album that oozes confidence—I mean, it kind of has to. For any band, whether they are at an early point in their career, or if they’ve been at it for three decades, something like this is a gamble, and you have to hope that your audience is going to be smart enough to follow along, or at the very least, be willing to play along.

From start to finish, There’s A Riot Going On is an album that’s about balancing opposites, or at least creating very obvious contrasts. It’s not an easy album, but it’s also not inaccessible; it’s interesting to say the least and moderately self-indulgent at times, but it’s also completely compelling and fascinating to see the group working within this very specific structure.

It’s not a record for the passing Yo La Tengo fan, or someone who is only familiar with their most popular singles—There’s A Riot Going On arrives, whether it was intended to or not, as a bit of an homage to the subtle sonic nuances that have been found throughout their canon thus far.

1- For what it’s worth, I don’t count their 2014 acoustic reimaginings and covers album, Stuff Like That There, as canon.