New Jersey’s foremost indie auteurs have always managed to find that fine line between obtuse experimentation and pastoral pop, one that sometimes makes Yo La Tengo’s intents difficult to unpack but enticing enough for added interest. For some, There’s a Riot Going On will likely further blur the lines between dreaminess and delirium, but given its low-lit haze, the atmospheric climate and the throbbing percussion that churns and gurgles throughout, that affable approach never wavers.
Longtime stalwarts Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew supposedly recorded it all spontaneously and without premeditation, suggesting they were in a decidedly reflective mood throughout the process. Likewise, there seems to have been a concerted effort to impart a comforting tone and compelling message, however opaque it occasionally appears. “For you, whenever there’s hurt, and things are uncertain, maybe I could be that guy, I’d like to try,” Kaplan pleads on first single “For You Too,” suggesting some message in all their meandering.
The fact that they replicate the title of Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 album and its obvious call to arms makes one believe that Yo La Tengo thinks the time is right for subtlety and assurance. The softly intoned “shoo-bop shoo-bop” in “Forever” doesn’t exactly echo with urgency, but the hypnotic drones and shimmery rhythms suggest a blend of darkness and light that resides well below the surface. Granted, these cerebral soundscapes require the listener to lean in, but once engaged, the process becomes both mesmerizing and puzzling. It’s psychedelic cacophony on one level, but a sublime set-up on another.
It’s best then to take There’s a Riot Going On as a distinct whole, rather than simply a series of subdued tunes. The undulating tones anchor it all, giving it a unified purpose even though few of the melodies are of the hummable variety. A riot? Hardly. But by combining these trance-like textures in such an incessant way, they’ve created music of a mostly memorable variety regardless.