Review: Yo La Tengo, There's a Riot Going On

The band says the new album is the product of the band unceremoniously working out some old sketches and soundtrack music, and…well, it sounds like it.
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Yo La Tengo, There's a Riot Going On

They phoned this one in. It’s tempting to just call it a sketchy EP of leftovers stretched to an hour’s length—and it is that—but it’s also just Summer Sun without the songs. Like Summer Sun, there’s more ambience, more general keyboard and synth blear, more lounge-pad speckles and dots, but the songwriting is rudimentary even by this band’s standards and the tone color doesn’t vary as much as they maybe thought it did. Alas, the weakest Yo La Tengo album since Popular Songs for sure and maybe since May I Sing With Me way back in 1992. Just go get Summer Sun instead, it’s gorgeous and colorful and everyone underrated it for some reason.

Ira has already confirmed that the new album is the product of the band unceremoniously and unrehearsedly working out some old sketches and soundtrack music, and…well, it sounds like it. Or more to the point, it sounds like they just didn’t fill these sketches out enough. Look, there are few people who could love Yo La Tengo as much as I do, but let’s be clear: this is not a band that I need to be any sketchier. Of course, it’s still Yo La Tengo, so the sound is never less than pleasant. But at the same time, that’s what the detractors always say about this band. And they’re wrong!

There’s a Riot Going On—and though I’m sure they had their reasons, it’s still annoying to use the name of an established classic (unless you pull a Replacements and end up making another classic in the process)—is textured quite nicely here and there, in amongst all the soft dreamy shuffly-ness that subsumes the words in the mix more than on the last few YLT albums. (Especially compared to their last album, the lovely acoustic mostly-covers record Stuff Like That There, which turned out to be a really wonderful grower. Better than Fakebook!) But there are too many stretches where the texture is still far from enough, and even when it is good it’s not that fucking good. Again, Summer Sun really is the template here, and they’re not hiding it: “Polynesia #1” has the same tumbling guitar pattern as James McNew’s “Tiny Birds”, but not as good; “Let’s Do It Wrong” has a carousel-in-slow-motion lift and keyboard dapple that sounds like “How to Make an Elephant Float”, but also not as good (though the moist drumstick clacks—lots of those on this album—and burbling space-age fishbowl stuff toward the end sound good, and it’s always nice to hear all three of them singing together); “You Are Here”, the washed-out ambient opener, invites immediate comparison to Summer Sun’s washed-out ambient opener “Beach Party Tonight”, but whereas the earlier track remains a sublimely wistful piece of music, “You Are Here” just sounds like rejected soundtrack work. (Any of their little miniatures from the Adventureland soundtrack are better than this.)

As for the two other longer ambient pieces (“longer” on this album means about six minutes), only “Dream Dream Away” is anything to write home about: unformed acoustic strums left to resonate so long that you’re allowed to focus on every squeak of fingers on strings, resulting in what seems like a whole horizon shimmering out in front of you. “Shortwave”, though, which immediately follows, just sounds like Michael Mann ambience — from one of the boring Michael Mann movies, too, not one of the thrillingly dreamy ones.

There are throwaway actual-songs, too. “Above the Sound” is just a sketch of a groove, with clattering toms and upright bass doing nothing to obscure the sketchiness. “Out of the Pool” held my interest only once, and that was because the wah-wah synth noise reminded me of Seefeel’s “Charlotte’s Mouth”. (Remember Seefeel? No? Oh.) Closer “Here You Are” sounds like a Fade demo, but it ain’t no “Before We Run” or “I’ll Be Around”, both of which it invites comparison to. (That acoustic arpeggio gets irritating.)

The best songs are the ones sung by Georgia: the aforementioned “Polynesia” (“at my leisure”); “Shades of Blue”, with a lovely vocal lamenting “life without you” and a texture that’s like watching shapes form through dots and blear (though performance-wise they didn’t work the song out enough together); the lounge-y “Ashes”, with great-sounding vibraphone that makes up for the unvaried cheap-o drum machine tap; and the heartbreaking “What Chance Have I Got”, with an upright bass figure continually passing off to a deep piano chord that’s left to reverberate and fill-out the mix all balmy-like. There Georgia concludes: “If that’s not enough, and I know it’s not/Stand your ground/What chance have I got.” If that song weren’t immediately followed by the short little bossa nova instrumental “Esportes Casual”—the only trace of cheeky pep on the album—one might be forced to linger on those words, and worry. Truth be told, I still worry.

Ira, meanwhile, sounds regretful, but it’s less powerful here because the songs aren’t that good. “She May, She Might” has a great little tune in the falsetto range that’s been running through my head for days, but he repeats it a lot because he knows there’s not much else to the damn song; it’s all about the drone, with Ira’s falsetto blending with Georgia’s murmurs to sound almost like a piano. (“She’ll try/She might/Sometimes/To find a way outside” — the intimate corner of the world whose escape is YLT’s specialty.) But the song wears out its welcome all the same — it’s five minutes, feels like seven, and should’ve been three. “For You Too” has a fuzzy woozy krautrock bass that’s about as “noisy” as the album gets, but Ira isn’t really trying with the guitar (there or throughout the album), although Georgia’s subtle backing hums toward the end are things of beauty. “Forever”, despite some interesting sitar/mouth-harp noises in its back half, is built around shoo-wop shoo-wop backing vocals that directly imitate the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes for You”, and…well, it probably isn’t a good move to invite comparison to “I Only Have Eyes for You” as far as long-night uncanny dream-texture pop music goes. Everything sounds feeble next to that song. “Did I take it for granted/Now it’s far, far away.” More cause for worry? I hope not, for our sake as well as theirs.

Oh, and don’t even get me started on that cover. B MINUS