There was a certain point in time, say, some 25 or more years ago, when a fan of this band would have been hard-pressed to even describe what genre of music Yo La Tengo operated in. I guess when I worked in a record store in the student union at the University of Maryland, and I stumbled upon a promo cassette of Fakebook (1990), I would have called this kind of music college rock, for that's what we called it, you kids, back when R.E.M. were the biggest band in America. With the release of Painful in 1993, Yo La Tengo got a bit more attention and seemingly crossed over even further into the territory of the kind of alt-rock that actually got played on MTV. Still, the band's music was gloriously unique, and the sort of thing that one either loved or...simply didn't understand. Now, with the release of their newest album, There's A Riot Going On, the 3 members of Yo La Tengo have refined their sound a bit and offered up the sort of record that 2018 desperately needs. An antidote to the ugliness around us these days, the songs on this record are some of the (seemingly) gentlest the trio have yet committed to tape, and yet, there's strength here too.
If Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew have the nerve to name an album after a Sly and the Family Stone classic, at least one realizes that these folks get it. The title of this record is not a dig at Sly as much as it is a reference to what's raging outside in the public sphere on a daily basis. If anything, the hour of music here on this new album, out on Friday via Matador Records, is an oasis of calm in an era of chaos. There are lovely instrumentals here (opener "You Are Here", for one), and numbers that positively ache with tenderness ("Shades of Blue", "Let's Do It Wrong"), but there are also lots of down-tempo rockers of the sort that shouldn't be too unfamiliar to fans of this band's late-Nineties output (the easy-and-natural "For You Too", the percolating "Out Of The Pool", and the faint-space jazz of "Above The Sound"). And that's only scratching the surface of the treasure-chest of music here.
There's A Riot Going On, more than an hour long, seems of an obvious piece with 2013's ruminative Fade, even if this release seems a more thoughtfully-constructed work as a whole. I say that because there's something consciously meditative here that suggests less the advancing age of the band members, and more of a need to slowly come to grips with the real world, and its future, in the era of Cheeto Jesus. If Georgia, Ira, and James don't make any explicit political points here on There's A Riot Going On -- at least not ones that a listener can catch with ease -- the very existence of this record, in this climate, is a political act. And one that is as revolutionary in its quiet way as, say, hardcore punk was in the Ronnie years. There's A Riot Going On sees Yo La Tengo focus their attention here in order to dial down the roar of the world a little bit, and offer up, on the nearly-ambient "Shortwave" and elsewhere, a counterpoint to the brutality of everyday existence, and a salve for the callousness of life in America with a rube at the helm. By mellowing out so dramatically on a number like "Forever", for instance, the band nearly disappears into the gossamer-thin composition, the 3 players favoring an approach here that seems both the natural progression that they were headed towards on recent releases, and a radically-soft shift in style that suits these musicians perfectly as the solution to their 30-year aesthetic journey. If the band never made another record, There's A Riot Going On would stand on its own as precisely the sort of thoughtful, wise, and contemplative final offering that the band always seemed poised to make.
There's A Riot Going On is out on Friday via Matador Records.