Music Is a Sanctuary From Chaos on Yo La Tengo’s ‘There’s a Riot Going On’
By Jon Pareles
At first glance, “There’s a Riot Going On” is a pointlessly provocative album title. The indie-rock band Yo La Tengo got it from the strange, brilliant 1971 album by Sly and the Family Stone, “There’s a Riot Goin’ On.” It was Sly Stone’s last great album, which included the hit “Family Affair,” and its viscous, gnarled, inward-looking funk has been scoured for ideas by songwriters like D’Angelo and Kanye West. What’s a not particularly funky indie-rock band from New Jersey doing by invoking that album’s mantle?
Apparently, thinking about its mood and its historical moment. The songs on “There’s a Riot Goin’ On” were about turning away from the post-1960s turbulence of the Nixon presidency and withdrawing into music as a hazy refuge. “Feel so good inside myself, don’t want to move,” declared its opener, “Luv N’ Haight.”
For Mr. Stone, the haze of 1971 also reflected a serious and increasing drug problem. For Yo La Tengo, it may just be a retreat from chaotic current events, into the relatively manageable realm of tinkering in the studio. The music drones and burbles, tinkles and undulates, taking its time and lingering over instrumental stretches as if people are still willing to experience a whole album from start to finish.
Yo La Tengo’s pullback isn’t as startling as Sly Stone’s was; the band hasn’t made anything close to Top 10 hits-cum-empowerment manifestoes like “Everyday People” and “Stand!” But on “There’s a Riot Going On,” the urge to find sanctuary in music is just as clear, along with the awareness that mayhem looms just outside its amniotic bliss.
“Forever” sways in slow motion, with a reassuring soul bass line, imperturbable organ chords and nostalgic “shoo-wop shoo-wop” backup vocals. But the lyrics that Ira Kaplan croons aren’t exactly comfortable: “Laugh away the bad times/Lie about what’s to come.”
The album’s mission statement may be in “Above the Sound”: “For all our heads may spin/See if we can look within,” Mr. Kaplan sings barely above a whisper. Or maybe it’s in “What Chance Have I Got,” sung by Georgia Hubley: “Stand your ground/What chance have I got.”