A younger Yo La Tengo would have used the current political climate to deliver music equivalent to a surging hurricane. Angular guitars, oft-kilter melodies, walls of feedback and reverb, crushing drums, and poignant lyricism were their trademarks with no two songs sounding alike. Their 15th album, There’s a Riot Going On, however, isn’t the typical YLT album. It is the archetype. Call it age or a conscious decision to further explore the possibilities of music and their own experimentation, this is the legendary band turning into Radiohead. Instead of unleashing catharsis, they explore ambience. As oppose to focusing on the walls, monuments, and the White House, they seek bliss. It’s a political album in truly an apolitical sense.
From the spellbinding instrumentals of the oceanic opener “You Are Here”, the acid jazz of “Above the Sound”, and the cosmic radiance of “Shortwave” that echoes Public Service Broadcasting, Yo La Tengo are using the chaos of these times to mesmerize. They are telling us that beauty still exists if we look hard enough. For starters, “it begins inside”, as co-front man Ira Kaplan lushly sings on the dazzling, springtime anthem “For You Too”. It’s one of the album’s rarities, where the band’s signatures – Georgia Hubley’s patient drumming, James McNew’s immersive bass, and, of course, the feedback – are prominently featured.
And beauty is found in our dreams, which the band subtly and quietly reveals on “Dream Dream Away”. The song commences with an elegant acoustic melody before transforming into a calm pool of ambient noise. It’s Bon Iver in its quality, yet even more intimate and breathtaking. Even more dazzling is “What Chance Have I Got”, where Hubley’s low-key delivery accentuates the sorrow and longing in her words.
YLT do drift beyond the psychological and physiological, sharing places where serenity can be found. The destinations, though, are interesting and likely purposefully chosen to make a subtle political message. The summery, tropical vibes of “Polynesia #1” take us to the shores of Maui, Oahu, and The Cook Islands. Meanwhile, the sounds of Latin America fill the light and bubbly “Esportes Casual”, which is a song that you might hear in Mexico City’s famous Plaza de la Constitución. Los Angeles’ Laurel Canyon neighborhood appears on the cool “Shades of Blue” and the folk splendor of “She May, She Might”.
While There’s a Riot Going On, as a whole, is short on words, two lines on the lo-fi and decelerated doo-wop tune, “Forever”, perfectly describe the album’s tone and message. As much as the LP is about escaping the madness and finding beauty, it is also about the future.
“Tomorrow is forever.
Let’s pretend we don’t know.”
These eight words could be etched on the epitaph for the period November 2016 to January 2021 (hopefully shorter and definitely not any longer). But until the day arrives when the man in the White House will, as explained on “Out of the Pool”, “exit stage left”, our challenge is to find hope and optimism. To find strength to overcome adversity, hate, and violence. Yo La Tengo have given us reason to believe better things are to come because we all share the same understanding what is beautiful and just. We just need to stop pretending we don’t know.
There’s a Riot Going On is out now on Matador Records. Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan, and James McNew are currently on the last half of their North American tour. They recently announced autumn dates in Japan, so expect the band to unveil additional shows across the world throughout the year.
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