Music is strange in the way it often evokes a sense of the time and place where you first heard it. It can be hard to tell whether this sense is a subjective feeling, a kind of synesthetic link between an experienced moment and its soundtrack, whether there’s something universal about what’s conjured up by a particular song or album, or more likely, whether the answer lies somewhere in between the two.
There’s A Riot Going On, by Yo La Tengo, sounds to me like snow in a city where there’s not usually snow. It sounds estranged from itself in the way that things are when they’re covered in a thin, cold layer of blue and white. It sounds like an excitement that’s also a nostalgia, like a sense of wonder still present, though dulled by time.
That might be a good way to describe the band as well. The March 16 release of There’s A Riot Going On marks their 15th full-length album in a discography stretching back to the band’s 1986 debut, Ride the Tiger. 32 years is an astoundingly long run for any band, especially an indie-rock trio, but Yo La Tengo persists, preserved somehow in the semi-ambient atmosphere they’re able to consistently create.
There’s A Riot Going On is undoubtedly an atmospheric project, unafraid of long instrumental sections between Ira Kaplan’s unmistakably airy vocals. Even amongst the band’s extensive discography, this album stands out as one of the more experimental, having been essentially self-recorded and pieced together over the last few years by the trio’s bassist, James McNew. The mix heightens the ambient tone as well, centering around the understated complexity of Kaplan’s rhythmic guitar lines over McNew’s driving bass, with Georgia Hubley’s percussion dancing lightly around the periphery.
The record’s title seems to be an allusion to Sly Stone’s 1971 album of the same name, sans a “g,” but unlike that directly political project, Yo La Tengo’s version seems more of a counterpoint to any kind of political statement, a response that refuses to be interrogated on terms other than its own. The riot is out there. In here there’s just the music.