Music Is a Sanctuary From Chaos on Yo La Tengo’s ‘There’s a Riot Going On’

Posted March 14, 2018 5:16 p.m. EDT

At first glance, “There’s a Riot Going On” is a pointlessly provocative album title. The indie-rock band Yo La Tengo got it from the strange, brilliant 1971 album by Sly and the Family Stone, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” It was Sly Stone’s last great album, which included the hit “Family Affair,” and its viscous, gnarled, inward-looking funk has been scoured for ideas by songwriters like D’Angelo and Kanye West. What’s a not particularly funky indie-rock band doing by invoking that album’s mantle?

Apparently, thinking about its mood and its historical moment. The songs on “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” were about turning away from the post-1960s turbulence of the Nixon presidency and withdrawing into music as a hazy refuge. “Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move,” declared its opener, “Luv N’ Haight.”

For Stone, the haze of 1971 also reflected a serious and growing drug problem. For Yo La Tengo, it may just be a retreat from chaotic current events, into the relatively manageable realm of studio tinkering. The music drones and burbles, tinkles and undulates, taking time to linger over instrumental stretches as if people will still listen to a whole album at once.

Yo La Tengo’s pullback isn’t as startling as Sly Stone’s was; the New Jersey band hasn’t made anything close to Top 10 hits-cum-empowerment manifestoes like “Everyday People” and “Stand!” But on “There’s a Riot Going On,” the urge to find sanctuary in music is just as clear, along with the awareness that mayhem looms just outside its amniotic bliss.

“Forever” sways in slow motion, with a reassuring soul bass line, imperturbable organ chords and nostalgic “shoo-wop shoo-wop” backup vocals. But the lyrics that Ira Kaplan croons aren’t exactly comfortable: “Laugh away the bad times/Lie about what’s to come.”

The album’s mission statement may be in “Above the Sound”: “For all our heads may spin/See if we can look within,” Kaplan sings barely above a whisper. Or maybe it’s in “What Chance Have I Got,” sung by Georgia Hubley: “Stand your ground/What chance have I got.”

Yo La Tengo was formed in 1984 by Kaplan (vocals and guitar) and Hubley (drums and vocals), who are married, and since 1992 its third member has been James McNew on bass. The band long ago became a quiet model for sustainable indie rock. Yo La Tengo has found a loyal audience, a steadfast label and considerable respect among fellow musicians. It has recorded an extensive catalog — “There’s a Riot Going On” is its 15th studio album — and it continues to play what it wants, from thoughtful 1960s-flavored pop-rock to extended feedback freakouts.

The band’s general canon, defined through its own songs and countless cover versions, is clear and broad: the 1960s of the Velvet Underground, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan, the British Invasion and psychedelia; the 1970s of Los Angeles folk-pop, krautrock and punk; the 1980s of new wave, post-punk and indie rock, not to mention select Top 10 pop from every era.

Even with that variety, any stable, long-running band has to battle staleness, and for this album, Yo La Tengo transformed its recording methods. “There’s a Riot Going On” is its first digitally recorded album, thus it could use an unlimited number of tracks. It was made in the band’s rehearsal studio with no outside producer, allowing each song to be built in leisurely layers. John McEntire, of Tortoise, mixed the results.

The album often dissolves the guitar-bass-drums core of typical Yo La Tengo songs. It’s awash in loops and effects, in sustained shimmering tones and percussion overdubs; in the opening track, “You Are Here,” a long drone acclimates a listener to its sense of suspended time. There are echoes of late-1960s studio extravaganzas like the Rolling Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” Tim Buckley’s “Goodbye and Hello” and the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” (The album’s closest approaches to lilting pop tunes, “Shades of Blue” and “Let’s Do It Wrong,” are overt homages to the mid-1960s Beach Boys.)

But the album’s tone is far more subdued than its psychedelic forebears, and Kaplan and Hubley, who have always been diffident singers, are even more self-effacing than usual.

They deliver their apprehensions gently, turning reckonings into reveries. In “She May She Might,” Kaplan sings about a woman who wishes she could “get outside her mind” or simply run away, in a tangle of unresolved modal harmonies. In “Dream Dream Away,” it takes nearly three minutes of contemplative, slowly strummed guitar and abstract reverberation before Kaplan muses, in choirlike vocal harmonies, “Why cry? Why try? It’s all the same.”

The album ends with “Here You Are,” a cozy, floating, gradually gathering vamp that enfolds a grim summation: “We’re out of time/Believe the worst.” Yo La Tengo knows all too well how fragile its musical refuge is, and how temporary.


Yo La Tengo

‘There’s a Riot Going On’