Yo La Tengo Album Review: Convention and experiments

Indie stalwarts Yo La Tengo subtly surprise on latest effort.

Surprisingly, quintessential critics’ band Yo La Tengo are more quietus than riotous on their latest album, There’s a Riot Going On. Compare it to songs like ‘White Riot’, ‘I Predict a Riot’, ‘Riot in Cell Block No. 9’. These songs are all rough and ready, evoking clashes with the police over protests, punch-ups, or prison. There’s a Riot Going On may not be as aggressive but that’s not to call it boring.

There’s a Riot Going On is the New Jersey group’s White Album – Just as The Beatles switched between concrete music and ‘Musique Concrete’ on their eponymous effort, Yo La Tengo show a similar conventional-unconventional counterbalance in album opener ‘You Are Here’. The name alludes to location, the pendulum bass to purpose, and the motorik drive to direction, but all this is offset by the static which starts the track and partial piano chords which meander below the mix.

This juxtaposition joins once more in the Grandaddy-styled of ‘Shades of Blue’. The off-beat tambourine and seventies soft-rock singing suggest a simplicity undercut by the sludgy strings and synths. But it is in the Gregorian-jazz of ‘Ashes’ where the band really come into their own, as the organ’s regular riff and walking bass build through swirling, symphonic textures and chanted vocals. It is St Germain meets St Peter’s Basilica.

Although they do dabble with the sixties on other tracks, perfectly pastiching Pet Sounds on ‘Let’s Do It Wrong’, YLT (who formed back in 1984) demonstrate the wisdom of their own generation, rather than a desire to be born in a different one. In the post-rock churn of ‘For You To’, electro-experimentation of ‘Out of the Pool’ and washed-out indie of ‘What Chance Have I Got’, the album is a showcase of what the band have done for music, rather than what music has done for the band.

However, at times the balance is off. In their attempt to create uncertainty, sometimes the band appear to be uncertain as to what they have created. ‘She May, She Might’ has the irritating falsetto vocals of much of YLT’s later discography and is only saved by the George Martin inspired tape effects. Likewise, the ambient soundscapes ‘Dream Dream Away’ and ‘Shortwave’ (which run into one another) are the longest 11 and a half minutes of my life.

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Moreover, when they go short they often fall short. ‘Esportes Casual’ is one and a half minutes of bosa nova elevator music which makes you want to take the stairs. While ‘Polynesia #1’ burdens blissful Byrdsesque guitars with laboured lyrics; rhyming ‘Polynesia’ with ‘leisure’.

But the odd ‘off’ track is always found on a double album – what were the Beatles thinking with ‘Bungalow Bill’?! Moreover, these up and downs when taken in isolation, become ebbs and flows when the LP is played start to finish. There’s a Riot is certainly Yo La Tengo’s best effort since 2009’s Popular Songs and has a depth and detail which gets better with each listen. Everything has an air of CAN being played in a can and the echoey expanses created are there for you to explore.

Understandably, for a band with a foreign name, loved by critics and muso’s alike, Yo La Tengo sometimes seem self-indulgent and self-obsessed, a fact which they play up to with ‘You are Here’/‘Here You Are’ beginning/ending of this album. But at other times (as their name means in English) they ‘have it’; an indefinable ‘something’ which inhabits the expanse between earphones.

It is at these moments, that the call to arms of There’s a Riot rings true. The guitar effects affect us, the reverb resonates with us, and the echoing chamber rock which the band espouse makes us ‘riot’ against the echo-chamber of contemporary music. Rather than stand-up and fight, this album makes us sit-down and think, but in such a blind, busy and blundering world such a quiet riot is no bad thing.