The most vulgar thing about Yo La Tengo’s latest is its nod to Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 landmark: on the Hoboken trio’s fifteenth album there’s no riot, and there’s nothing going on—at first. Fans expecting the freakouts of yore will instead hear a series of tranquil undulations, notably in the second third of this hour-long album. Quiet has rarely sounded this fraught. If Yo La Tengo’s greatest subject has often been itself—the platonic triad of bassist James McNew, singer-guitarist Ira Kaplan and singer-percussionist Georgia Hubley adding sinew and affirmations to Kaplan and Hubley’s own marriage—then There’s a Riot Going On limns a soundscape occupied, contentedly, by no one but themselves. Communicating through a series of cues and reflexive winks like parents hosting a kid’s birthday party, Yo La Tengo are self-contained. Their albums are, their little corner of the world.
Fans looking for “Autumn Sweater,” “Little Eyes,” “Ohm,” “Cherry Chapstick,” or “Tom Courtenay” will regard Riot’s sweet sigh “For You Too” as a life preserver. As for the rest, brace yourselves. Although YLT have strewn quasi-instrumentals and space rock drones on their albums for more than twenty-five years, Riot marks the first time a sequence depends on these tracks. In short, Riot is a party for those who dig “Green Arrow,” “Big Day Coming,” and their ilk. After the Hubley-sung/whispered “Pale Blue Eyes” variant “Polynesia #1” comes “Dream Dream Away,” an experiment on how many changes the band can wring from strumming and how long the band can sustain those changes (answer: more than five minutes). “Shortwave” imagines what crawling into a giant eardrum might sound like: sustained, warped chords and the faintest of radio chatter fluctuate on and on—imagine Lou Reed’s Metal Machine Music re-done as the friendliest of field recordings.
Career bands require a fealty subject to periodic tests; at any point listeners may give up and move on to younger and exciting acts. Differentiating between progress and refinement emphasizes the falseness of the choice. In other words, appreciating the level of sonic detail in Riot may not be your thing at all. “I looked everywhere for you,” Kaplan coos in “Forever” over a distant organ and a bass distortion that sounds like the screen on a balcony snapping; meanwhile the McNew-Hubley backup vocals allude to the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You” But this is no despaired valentine: “Let’s drink until we’re blown.” That organ is the equivalent of the hotel bar at which the Yo Las meet to argue about shit; it’s what they have in common, an artistic Switzerland. “Out of the Pool” uses it to splendid effect over a funk riff, more Kaplan murmurs, and another guitar riff that’s like paint thrown on a wall.
An album to savor, then, or forget. If the former, then the Sly Stone reference isn’t such a joke after all: if given a couple chances “Runnin’ Away” and “Thank You For Talkin’ to Me Africa” are a headphones experience too. Crucially, Yo La Tengo’s Riot also unfolds as an album about a band that’s sometimes too high for its own good—high on the headiness of laying down a groove as squirrelly intense as the one on “Ashes,” say. Defiant in the manner of an invasive plant taking root in a garden, herbicides be damned, There’s a Riot Going On may inspire a devotion as powerful as I Can Feel the Heart Beating as One or Summer Sun inspires. Relationships are like that.