The fifteenth studio album from indie rockers Yo La Tengo makes an odd claim. Based on the title alone, one might think that an album named There’s a Riot Going On would include some pretty hefty, perhaps politically slanted music. Of course, any fool knows not to judge a book by its cover. The contents of this album are light and slow, subtly inflecting their mellow moods with often minimal instrumentation and a wafting sense of simple delirium. Never really getting above a crawling pace, it will present itself to particular ears as a dragging, dopey waste of time. But to the patient and curious, there is no denying the crafty charm of this slow mover. It’s a bizarre mélange of cocktail lounge music, tribal rhythms and swooning soundscapes that blends itself into an intriguing and endearing record.
There is a mildly hypnotic feel to a lot of these songs and this is due in part to the clear lack of focus on lyrics. Including more than one instrumental and a number of tracks that incorporate lengthy lyric-free sections, the record draws its tribal vibes from this fact as well. Opener “You Are Here” ensures we are sufficiently relaxed before we delve into the depths of this hour-long album, grooving along with a pulsating rhythm before moving into second track “Shades of Blue”. This track draws Velvet Underground comparisons with both the musical composition and the timbre of drummer Georgia Hubley’s voice reminding us of the Velvets’ “Femme Fatale”. Lyrically lamenting on lost love, it provides a kind of dazed melancholy.
“For You Too”, while still being a reasonably gentle affair with just a hint of underlying fuzz ferocity, is about as heavy as the album gets, which is to say not heavy at all. Gently bouncing guitar lines accompany the affectionate vocal so tenderly delivered by guitarist/pianist Ira Kaplan, shyly romanticising with lines like “For you, whenever there’s hurt.. I could be that guy, I’d like to try”. The beauty of this album is in the response to the riot mentioned in the title. Rather than an explosive admonishment of all society’s wrong doings, the band make a much subtler but just as potent statement that emanates from a place of peace and patience, perhaps even love. Again, as the laid back calm of tracks “Polynesia #1” and “Dream Dream Away” demonstrate with their sleepy, woozy atmosphere, the emergence of that statement comes thoroughly through the music rather than any blatant lyrical motifs. Sure, there’s a riot going on, but music like this provides the downtrodden with refuge.
The daydream continues on into the second half of the record. “Shortwave” and “Above the Sound” are semi-disturbed slabs of noise that admittedly over-extend their welcome slightly – both running close to the six minute mark with little variance. But they also radiate that tribal, trance-like energy. They are certainly tracks which one could drift off and away with if you let your mind dip for a few seconds too long. The same might be said of “Let’s Do It Wrong” and “Esportes Casual”, but in a different way. These two tracks, particularly the latter, exude a breezy, Latin flavour that spices things up a touch and gives us a break from the drawn out drones without compromising on the tranquillity, keeping themselves aligned with the overall mood of the album.
Getting towards the last couple of songs, even the most hopeful of fans will surely have lost hope of hearing anything resembling the heavier side of the band’s character. There will be no “Pass The Hatchet, I Think I’m Goodkind” or “We’re An American Band” on this record. “Out of the Pool”, one of five singles to come off the album, is a notable oddball, bringing with its woody percussion and spoken word lyrics a slightly darker element that gives a brief nod to their shoegazey freak-outs. But it’s over pretty sharply. Closer “Here You Are” drifts in and plants us back on the mellow train, with a persistent rhythm, some sampling of birds chirping and some enchanting layers of vocal giving it a nice earthy feel as it flows on out and sends us on our way, feeling a little sleepy and stoned like coming out of a long yoga session.
In this latest effort, Yo La Tengo have produced a record that feels like it’s more for them than for us, the listeners. Taking the time to carve out these slow burning tunes feels almost like a healing affair for the band. This is not to say that they don’t have us mind at all, in fact if you take the time, There’s a Riot Going On could well end up being the perfect soundtrack to some innocent summer days or even get you through a tough time with its soothing melodies. In general, this is a record which shouldn’t really be read about before it’s heard. Let go of what you would expect from such an experimental band and simply enjoy the ride – it’s both relaxing and engaging.