Sly and the Family Stone’s 1971 record, ‘There’s A Riot Goin’ On’, was released at a tumultuous period in the band’s career, documenting oppression, paranoia and political wariness at the turn of the decade. As dense and dark as it was, Sly’s release was a hard dose of reality – a product of the regime that it was born into. Mirroring its title, Yo La Tengo’s fifteenth record – while touching similar nerves – is more a refuge from the storm; their own inimitable response to their country’s current state of disrepair.
On their first album proper since 2013’s ‘Fade’ (the interim ‘Stuff Like That There’ focused on cover versions, as YLT are inclined to do), Georgia Hubley, Ira Kaplan and James McNew retreated to their rehearsal studio and closed ranks. The composite parts were assembled from improvised jams and off-the-cuff sessions, sometimes with as much as a year passing by before the same song was considered complete. The resulting album is as unhurried and unrestricted as the process adopted by the trio, gently meandering from the poppier front end, through pastoral retro-folk, to experimental instrumentals and finally darkly hued soul over one amiable hour.
After an instrumental lead-in, Shades Of Blue immediately recalls sunshine pop; the California Sound via Fleetwood Mac, with She May, She Might intimating the Beatles in title and tone. As For You Too rolls out, it carries with it one of the record’s most immediately grabbing melodies, gliding along on the momentum of McNew’s bass and Kaplan’s jangling guitar arpeggios…beautiful.
The album’s lengthy and insular recording period seems to have allowed Hubley, Kaplan and McNew to flit between style and genre, while maintaining a cohesion through the fifteen tracks. Above the Sound is a more erratic, Can-like hodge-podge of percussion and a simple repeated riff adhering to the Mark E. Smith dictum: “This is the three Rs/The three Rs: Repetition, Repetition, Repetition.” Somewhere in the spaced chords of Dream Dream Away there are echoes of Tom Petty, until it sidesteps into something reminiscent of Animal Collective’s more opiate-tempered material.
The band’s assimilation and encyclopaedic knowledge of music is indelible through ‘There’s a Riot Going On’. When Georgia takes lead vocal on Polynesia #1, the mind immediately drifts to Big Star, daydreaming of India. The message here, though, is not one of retreat but of action – of elegant, understated defiance: “There ain’t nobody about to tell me/ How to take my liberty.”
Late on in the record, there is a red herring with Esportes Casual – instrumental, bossa nova pop with a Gallic twist. Twee and playful, it’s completely at odds with the triptych that then rounds off ‘There’s a Riot Going On’. The louche soul jazz of Forever, with its delicate “shoo-bop shoo-bop” refrain, brings things back into the arena of this record’s namesake, setting up the darker trip-hop of Out of the Pool. The subtly tribalistic rhythm of Here You Are, then, propels Yo La Tengo languidly towards a conclusion, as close to Sly Stone’s masterpiece as their title alludes.
In his essay to accompany this release, author and critic Luc Sante wrote, “While there’s a riot going on, Yo La Tengo will remind you what it’s like to dream.” Nothing much may have fundamentally changed since Nixon held office, and we’re all getting fucked to some extent, but there is always comfort in the fact that Yo La Tengo are on hand to administer their constantly reassuring aural elixir.