No one would label this great band with the term “consistent”: even within their albums, the quality of the output usually varies. Yet the warmth that exudes from Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, the married couple who form the core of the trio, as well as their outstanding musicianship, elevates even the lesser material so that in indie-rock circles this band is rightly spoken about with reverence.
Yo La Tengo are comfortable in numerous genres and their love of music always shines through, which makes them easy to fall in love with. They’ve famously switched between loud, feedback-laden, guitar-drenched experimentalism in the style of Sonic Youth (Painful, Electr-O-Pura) and quiet, roots-derived, acoustic-driven prettiness (Fakebook, Summer Sun, Stuff Like That There) for their entire career.
You might expect There’s a Riot Going On to fit into the former category, given the title, which of course steals from the 1971 classic by Sly & the Family Stone. But you’d be wrong. There’s little that’s riotous about There’s a Riot Going On, yet it’s not especially pretty either. It floats in a nether region, a zone of ambient soundscaping, which holds little melodic satisfaction or interesting experimentalism, but emits gentle waves of quietude that don’t ever seem to crash on the shore.
It starts promisingly enough. Curiously (the first of many curiosities), the first track, “You Are Here”, is a near-6 minute instrumental, which shakes and thrums with an appealing melancholy even as it goes on too long. Then comes the album’s highlight: “Shades of Blue”, with a plaintive and lovely vocal by Georgia Hubley that like all of hers sounds like she’s learnt how to sing by listening to Maureen Tucker on The Velvet Underground’s “After Hours”, so calm and controlled and unexpectedly poignant is her approach. Whilst The Rolling Stones look at the world and see it painted black, Georgia Hubley looks at everything and only manages to see hues of blue, which makes you want to hug her. Because boy does she make you believe that the world is painted with that most melancholy of colours.
Following those two numbers are a pair of Ira Kaplan performances that, whilst not among his best, manage to sustain one’s interest. “She May, She Might” has subtle psychedelic embellishments that make it sound like an undeveloped throwaway from The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine. Sounding like The Beatles is of course never a bad thing, though at 5 minutes (that feel even longer) the song lacks that band’s focussed succinctness. Then comes “For You Too”, which has a nice guitar tone, one that’s sweet and muffled and never comes on too strong, which suits Kaplan’s vocals and a lyric that humbly admits “I’m just some guy/Too much pride”.
Unfortunately that four song streak is the album’s peak, and together they account for less than a third of the album’s length. Elsewhere the band display their ever-impressive eclecticism, though each time a new genre is explored it feels tossed about with little care. “Esportes Casual” is a jaunty little bossa nova number that lasts for less than two minutes and sits ill at ease with the album’s general solemnity. “Forever” is mystic doo-wop that has the band performing The Flamingos’ famous “shoo-wop shoo-wop” vocals from “I Only Have Eyes For You” over a too-murky backdrop of echoey atmospherics. “Out of the Pool” whispers of funk with James McNew’s slinky bass riff, but the rest of the band never feel fully committed to the groove.
All of these detours are disappointing. Yet none more so than the album’s centrepiece, three instrumentals that are also the album’s nadir: “Dream Dream Away”, “Shortwave”, and “Above the Sound” (lyrics appear at the end of the last track). Together they last 17 minutes, but they feel much longer. Whilst the band’s skill as musicians is never in doubt, these meander aimlessly, failing to evolve or in any other way involve the listener. “Dream Dream Away” and “Shortwave” are slow and stately soundscapes that aim for Brian Eno but come up short, way short of that minimalist’s best productions. They’re 11 minutes of your life that you don’t need to spend with Yo La Tengo. “Above the Sound” is a little better, because its roiling percussion, courtesy of Georgia Hubley, comes on strong and doesn’t let up, but it still overreaches and becomes ultimately skippable.
These instrumentals represent the haziness and general feeling of ennui that sums up this album; and whilst Sly & the Family Stone’s There’s a Riot Goin’ On did so much with haziness and ennui back in the 1970s, in the 2010s, Yo La Tengo fail to do the same.