Writing about Yo La Tengo is difficult, in the same way as writing about any band that’s been going for over three decades is difficult. What is there to say that has not already been said? The problem is perhaps rendered more acute in the case of this one – very special band – than in other similar cases. One can always find more ways to heap praise on the shape-shifting brilliance of Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, to express tentative excitement about a new Flaming Lips record, or to disparage Metallica for their own particular brand of self-delusional redundancy.
Yo La Tengo, in contrast to all of the above, are almost anonymous. Formed in 1984 in Hoboken, New Jersey (also the city where Frank Sinatra was born), the husband-and-wife duo of Georgia Hubley and Ira Kaplan reportedly went through thirteen bass players before finding James McNew (who has held that spot down since 1992). There’s a Riot Going On is their fifteenth album and, like most of their discography, it carries itself with an unassuming (but powerful) air of quiet confidence. On this record – on the last three or four records perhaps – Yo La Tengo sound like they have existed forever. They have become so completely absorbed into the fabric of the most visible echelons of the musical underground that it’s nearly impossible to imagine an indie landscape without them.
Despite the title’s allusion to Sly & The Family Stone’s landmark 1971 funk classic – possibly the most significant early Seventies elegy for the murdered optimism of the sixties – There’s a Riot Going On is Yo La Tengo’s most sedate, ambient record to date. In this sense the album could be interpreted as mimicking the band’s very longevity. There’s a subtle defiance about Yo La Tengo’s apparent permanence, and perhaps There’s a Riot Going On is simply restating that – throughout all the economic, political, and social turmoil constantly engulfing (or at least threatening to engulf) us all – this is one band who will always weather the storm.
There are, of course, some beautiful songs here. ‘Shades of Blue’, ‘Polynesia #1’, and ‘What Chance Have I Got?’ stand out for their placid gorgeousness. The fantastic ‘For You Too’ is the only track that could really be adequately described as a 'rock song'. Those for whom Yo La Tengo’s back catalogue is defined by ‘From a Motel 6’ or ‘Tom Courtenay’ may find themselves disappointed here, but only if they consciously choose to avoid the more humble pleasures on offer here. The opening/closing duo of ‘You Are Here’ and ‘Here You Are’ act as an adept summary of this album’s true strength. Like a hug from an old friend, it asks for nothing in return, offering a comforting warmth that it’s difficult to imagine any other band on the planet being able to equal.
“Laugh away the bad times / Lie about what’s to come / The less said the better / Let’s drink until we’re dumb”, Kaplan intones on the glorious ‘Forever’. Don’t interpret There’s a Riot Going On as a statement but as escapism, and as an affirmation of the virtues of endurance.
8Benjamin Bland's Score