Playful echoes of famous album titles come around often enough, their intentions ranging from pointed (Liz Phair’s
Exile in Guyville) to parodic (Butthole Surfers’ Electriclarryland), but aside from a few scattered IV‘s out there, not many have chosen to borrow directly. It’s one thing to jest like the Rolling Stones did with Let It Bleed, it’s another for the Replacements to swipe Let It Be from the Beatles and claim it for their own. So the title of Yo La Tengo’s new album is something of a bold choice for calling back to a stone-cold classic, not to mention for all the ‘quiet riot’ subheads it invites.
Five years ago,
Fade, the band’s 13th album, arrived as Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan were approaching their 30th anniversary of making music together. Back in a prior era they had reminisced in song about good times spent in the garage jamming on the Stones’ “Sitting on a Fence”, and now here they were with decades of their own worthy history, and with as many (if not more) worthwhile records in their catalogue. Fade, with a title like that, seemed to be positioned to leave the door open for an exit if they had so chosen. But then those first lines of “Ohm” proved unfortunately prescient: “Sometimes the bad guys go right on top / Sometimes the good guys lose / We try not to lose our hearts / Not to lose our minds.”
Those words hardly felt like a dire warning in the relatively hopeful days of 2013, yet here we are, and Yo La Tengo, having apparently seen the storm coming in advance, have hunkered down to weather it. There’s a riot going on, so where are you going to be? “I’m going to Polynesia/I’m going at my leisure”, claims “Polynesia #1”, Mai Tai’s on the mind. Well, we can’t all crowd around the front lines.
The calm tenor of
There’s a Riot Going On suggests that, if the title is intended as a social statement (and it’s not clear that it is), Yo La Tengo, on some level, trust that cooler heads can prevail. This is not the first time that the trio has exuded a kind of pacifist resistance in a time of widespread social anxieties. One of their most mellow albums up to now, And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out, came together in the last days of pre-millennium tension and was released only weeks after the Y2K non-event came and went. Everyone else was getting wound up, but Yo La Tengo were stretching out and taking a deep breath.
There’s a Riot Going On returns to the resting heart rate of And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside Out. Folks who place that album as the group’s peak will have a lot to be happy about, and there are a good number of those folks out there. Turning the outside back in, it also catches them lyrically in some of their most plain spoken and sentimental moments. “Whenever there’s hurt / And things are uncertain / Maybe I could be that guy / I’d like to try” offers Kaplan on “For You Too”. For you, too, Yo La Tengo could be that band.
For a cycle of songs supposedly built up from strands of self-recorded ideas put down on tape over an extended period, the production has a remarkably strong and consistent presence across the entire album. John McEntire of Tortoise and the Sea and Cake, who also produced
Fade, has made sure that the sound itself of There’s a Riot Going On gives it as much of its character as the melodies. “You Are Here” to “Here You Are”, Hubley, Kaplan, and bassist James McNew play enveloped in a giant, warm, reflective soap bubble. Right there inside of it with them, the listener soon loses interest in the blurry shapes of the world passing outside.
When it came time to release some tracks in advance of
Riot‘s arrival, the first four were all eventually chosen. Yo La Tengo have been at this long enough that their every decision, including sequencing, is inherently well informed and considered, so “Shades of Blue”, “She May, She Might” and “For You Too” feel placed to present the most ‘traditional’ YLT songs first. That’s not to say the record is front-loaded so much as that they ease your ears into the gradual dissolution of the structure as it moves into the strum-und-hum bliss out of “Dream Dream Away” and the submariner radio scan of “Shortwave”. Still, as a living jukebox with a note-for-note knowledge of pop history, they are never far from a classic tune, which “Forever” shows with its nocturnal reimagining of the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You”. Instead of the simple happiness of not being able to see beyond the one you love, “Forever” is about making a conscious choice to shut everything else out: “Laugh away the bad times / Lie about what’s to come / The less said the better / Let’s drink until we’re dumb.”
Occasional detours like the jazz bass meander of “Above the Sound” and the elevator bossa nova of “Esportes Casual” may not have the payoff of the soothing “What Chance Have I Got” or the tastefully e-bowed “Ashes” and “You Are Here”, but they lay gentle speed bumps along the album’s lulling road. As the word shuffle of the first and last song implies,
There’s a Riot Going On can be played on loop so smoothly as to go unnoticed. More than most any other Yo La Tengo album, it has a palpable, unflappable mood all of its own.