For an album named after the funky, eccentric and brilliantly-composed 1971 Sly and the Family Stone album There’s a Riot Goin’ On, one might anticipate Yo La Tengo’s spinoff to be a sonic fusion of Ira Kaplan’s galvanizing guitar solos and upbeat, chaotic Georgia Hubley drum fills. Instead, Yo La Tengo’s latest album offers ambient melodies, hushed lyricism and coastal grooves throughout.
There’s a Riot Going On opens with the song “You Are Here.” Beginning with a reverberating drone reminiscent of a sweltering amp, the hum then fades into a soft and steady percussion, masked by a lulling mixture of synth and guitar. The five-minute-and-44-second collection of cool breeze beats sizzles, setting the stage for an album’s worth of peaceful tracks and beachy, technically flawless ballads.
This is not going to be an album of crashing cymbals and pounding bass, of lyrics screaming in protest. This is an escape from the chaos. From the jump, Yo La Tengo implores you to sit back, relax and see the power of beautiful music devoted to its listeners.
Kaplan trills out a calm collection of unresolved harmonies with a casual tone in “She May, She Might.” A relatively-upbeat song for the album, it’s as though it was written for a drive through Santa Barbara back in the ‘70s, windows rolled down in the summer heat. The thin drum beat softly thumbs in the background as guitar rhythms croon with breezy synth chords. It’s a sweet, thoughtful tune, beckoning listeners to run away from their troubles and meditate with Yo La Tengo in the swarm of their pacific, polytextural sound.
“Shades of Blue” is a heavenly number, with Hubley’s vocals reminiscent of the tone of Nico’s solo career. The jaunty pulse of the beat and breathy cadence of the tambourine juxtapose the subject of being alone. The lyrics, “Choosing a color / for my particular point of view / Kidding myself / They’re all shades of blue,” echo heartbreak as the acoustics freefall around Hubley’s wispy voice.
One of the best songs on the album, “For You Too,” begins with the reverberating arpeggio of guitar, the hazy tempo of a bass and delicate drums trailing behind. Kaplan’s fuzzy vocals, gentle and airy like the early sound of the Velvet Underground, croon tenderly in conjunction with the full guitar flurries. The lyrics he whispers are a comforting hand on a slumped shoulder, an arm softly raising someone off the floor, singing that it’s not too late for change. Yo La Tengo maintains its reputation for subtlety, with “For You Too” being the most explicitly revolutionary ballad on the album, modestly suggesting that humanity is not lost in spite of all evidence to the contrary.
“Esportes Casual” is a silly and jazzy instrumental interlude, laced with a ‘60s-style keyboard and salsa-esque beat. “Forever” plays like a personalized bedtime story told by Kaplan himself, backed by a bouncy, asymmetric rhythm and soft shoo-wops. The album ends on the song “Here You Are,” drawing a complete circle from start to finish, reminding listeners that their focus should be on the present. In a choir-like hymn soaked in vibrato and delicate folk percussion, Yo La Tengo sings “We’re out of time / Believe the worst,” fully aware of the ephemeral nature of both music and time itself.
There’s a Riot Going On is different from the namesake Sly and the Family Stone album in tone and execution, but it’s similar in purpose. Both borne out of tumultuous political landscapes, the albums symbolize change. They serve as the voice in the crowd saying that powerful and dedicated music can be revolutionary.
Absent from this album are the psychedelic tracks of albums like Yo La Tengo’s 2000 release And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out. Replacing them are calm melodies, serenading their listeners with a chill, breathy marriage of synth, guitar, drums and vocals. Rather than add to the noise, Yo La Tengo is the comforting sanctuary in the midst of the chaos. The band encourages its listeners to sit back, take a breath and meditate with the music. It’s all for them.