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Artists become, for better or worse. Yo La Tengo have gotten the becoming period out of their system, and for two decades now, they simply have been. There’s a crucial difference between has-beens and have-beens. The former had their grip on something special; something unique and often undefinably infectious that gave them a cultural foundation which, although once unshakeable, has grown tired or half-assed in recent efforts. The latter just can’t seem to let go of that something, and it would stand to reason that they’re sentenced to repeat such excellence until they deem fit to stop. Well, it’s 2018 and there’s a riot going on. As much as they opined, “This is it for all we know,” on last record Fade, it’s still too early to punch in their cards.
Having spent the entirety of their career with Matador as some of the most ineffably dependable (or is it dependably ineffable?) musicians on the scene, it makes complete sense for their latest record to come to fruition by happenstance. Happy accidents do exist, and after enough recordings from practice sessions piled up, the gang discovered that they were in fact setting the pieces for their next full-length. For a process so self-descriptively hodgepodge, they really defy odds by gluing together a track listing that appears as meticulous and considerate as any other in their catalogue. It’s about as close as anyone will come to completing a task “in their sleep,” and proof that as long as James McNew feels the need to set up some mics from time to time at their Hoboken practice space, the magic will be captured, and—in the case of There’s a Riot Going On —yield a new work with its own distinct personality and merit.
Not that the bandmates would ever abide by lumping an album into something so bracketed as a trilogy, but Riot is a chip off the old block from both And Then Nothing Turned Itself Inside-Out and Summer Sun. An undeniable nighttime prevails over the course of its Casio-esque drum-soaked hour runtime, and unlike its predecessors, there’s no “Cherry Chapstick” barnburner to unexpectedly light a match under our asses partway through or a “Moonrock Mambo” to inject a late dose of jive attitude. Even at its highest bpm count in “For You Too,” the only attitude to be found is one of pure demureness, and McNew’s bass reaches fuzzier climes than Ira Kaplan’s guitar ever aspires to.
For that matter, McNew’s most outwardly noticeable contributions lie in the presence of his upright bass, which makes a welcome, surprising return from Stuff Like That There. It unconsciously sets much of the mood, adding a rustic accent to a bassist whose previous duties frequently entail deliberate, repetitive structures. The upright shakes up some of that rigidity into a melodic tour guide this time around, allowing him to teach dance footings step-by-step in the euphoric shoo-bop-shoo-bop of “Forever” or craft the jazzy waves that lap at the shore of “Above the Sound”—a brilliant, meditative cacophony that comes as their coolest impression yet of heroes the Sun Ra Arkestra.
True, Kaplan’s guitar never inches toward the peak distorted freak-out of yore, but his signature is applied in several other methods. E-bow is a tool he’s familiarly grabbed for many times over, and it practically commands the beginning of this record on spacy opener “You Are Here.” The wordless composition speaks volumes about patience and understanding—a sentiment later vocalized on closer “Here You Are.” The two make a lovely pair; one mutely expresses a Zen koan on current times while the other gives an accordingly enlightened answer, estimated to the best of Yo La Tengo’s abilities: “We are out of words, we’re out of time/We gasp the air, we grasp at straws no longer there.” When it comes to their own music in interviews, they can’t be bothered to ascribe explicit meaning to anything, so when faced with the goings-on of others, you can’t reasonably expect for them to start firing direct shots. This is precisely why their choice of words works so well. For one thing, it’s a choice of words rather than a cocksure running of one’s mouth. If there’s one way the band “shows their age,” it’s the sage tact they offer here, staring calmly into the abyss of our reality-show-gone-governmental. They line up their crosshairs on a sorry excuse for representation rather than singling anyone out—besides, to be namedropped by Yo La Tengo is a boon; among those privileged few are Tony Orlando and Julie Christie.
It is with that respectful grace that Kaplan and Georgia Hubley execute their roles in between said bookends. Kaplan explores a painterly route, swathing the preoccupied loop of “Ashes” with heavenly flits of keyboard on vibraphone setting, weaving a psychedelic paisley into the curious fabric of “She May, She Might,” or embedding “Out of the Pool” with surreal non-sequiturs. Hubley’s drums are largely dichotomous; either raucous and multi-layered like on the opener and “Above the Sound,” or hardly pronounced at all. Her tender vocal strengths shine brightest on Riot, be it the innocent hopeful she embodies in “Shades of Blue” or the brave vulnerable in “What Chance Have I Got.” Its naked quality has done well to produce many tear-inducing moments in the past, and its power remains unrestricted.
There’s a Riot Going On is perfect in the way that every Yo La Tengo album is perfect to a member of their fan club because it follows the three mandatory stipulations: it was recorded by Ira, Georgia, and James; it was recorded with their best intentions; and it was recorded without forcing anything. By that metric, they’ve done it again.
You may purchase the record here.
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