There’s a riot going on and Yo La Tengo has taken some time to think about it. Consequently, they give listeners 63:31 of contemplative indie avant-garde rock to do just the same.
The title for the cornerstone indie-rockers’ fifteenth full-length LP, “There’s A Riot Going On,” is lifted from Sly and The Family Stone’s 1971 album, “There’s A Riot Goin’ On,” drawing on the connotations of potent change, revolution, and disillusion the album has come to represent. An album that Sly and The Family Stone had been waiting to make after fulfilling label demands, and that tension – – compounded by drug-influenced disillusionment – – mirrored the band’s feeling for a country that hadn’t lived up to the possibility of radical change.
And now it wouldn’t be obtuse to suggest America is in a similar position. Following nearly a decade of Obama, there’s a level of discontent for the hope and change that failed to materialize. Specifically following the 2016 election.
So while the discontent and frustration may come from the same place, the figurative riot is now the toxic political and social discourse that facilitated the Trumpster’s historic presidential run. Since the President and American politics have become their own parody. And to rebel against that is to be logical, sincere, and thoughtful. Something Yo La Tengo has taken a healthy, thoughtful, hopefully, sincere swing at with “There’s a Riot Going On”.
“Since adding James McNew in the early 1990s, Yo La Tengo have singularly defined American indie rock, merging their sui generis suburban psychedelia with a record collector’s urge to re-animate rock history and a mordant sense of humour about the inherently silly nature of their chosen profession,” writes Pitchfork contributor Eric Harvey. Which would make Yo La Tengo the perfect band to make this type of record.
The album begins with a five-minute slow droning instrumental that gradually picks up in tempo, titled “You Are Here.” The song comes to a climax around the three-minute mark – – and rather than slowing down into the outro – – it is held until the track is phased out. “You Are Here” is followed by, “Shades of Blue” one of the more commercial tracks on the album.
“Choosing a color for my particular point of view
Kidding myself, there are shades of blue
Whenever I see them, oh, shades of blue”
Reflecting a definitive disillusionment and hopelessness not far off from the ethos of Sly and The Family Stone’s 1971 album.
“She May, She Might” seems as though it is responding to “Shades of Blue”. Something that alters the recurring ‘you’ in the song. When Kaplan sings, “She’ll try/She might Sometimes/To find a way outside,” with the last line being, “Her mind”. So that when Hubely sings, “Facing my feelings for a life without you”; and “Staying indoors cause you’re not around”, the ‘you’ is an emotional or intellectual conflict. While the “shades of blue” room is a figurative form of disillusionment.
“Not now, not today/Run, run, run away,” he sings appealing to the apathy of the previous line, though the song ends with, “She may/She might/Today,” displaying hope despite being critical.
Similarly, “Polynesia #1” (there is no #2) is an easy, unsuspecting track about going to a faraway place – – a pop staple- – though Hubely sneaks in a wry jab, “There ain’t nobody/Who got to tell me/How I/Take my liberty.” Finishing the song, “I’m going to Polynesia/As the crow flies/The reason I’m going/Is because I done got wise.”
The lyrics are subtle, pop lyrics, they aren’t exactly scathing socio-political finger-point satires. The band is more/less suggesting or presenting something, rather than being critical or satirical; showing rather than explicitly telling.
“There’s a Riot Goin’ On” also has several instrumentals – and the songs with vocals have sparse and general lyrics, though there’s clearly a political edge to them. And that starts with the connotations provided by the title.
Trump is like the physical manifestation of the sarcastic sardonic television culture that he thrived in with The Apprentice. So theoretically, criticizing someone or something that is already ironic, in the usual ironic, satirical way is akin to the old rubber-glue scenario. Once the mainstream shifts towards the rebellious trend, i.e. rock’n’ roll becoming a commercial genre, the cool-hip-rebellious pose shifts as well. As author David Foster Wallace explains, “The reason why our pervasive culture of irony is at once so powerful and so unsatisfying is that an ironist is impossible to pin down. All U.S. irony is based on an implicit ‘I don’t really mean what I’m saying.’”
This is something Trump’s run was based on, disrupting the corrupt political system. Except that turned out to be his entire platform (besides building a wall, and renegotiating trade). Which was most apparent when Republicans repealed the Affordable Care Act (Obama Care) without having a health care plan with which to replace it. Or the CBS interview with John Dickerson he abruptly ended when Dickerson pressed him to commit to a position on his Obama wiretapping claims.
A keen signifier of a president borne out of our “pervasive culture of irony” as if a reality-TV host literally stepped from the television screen in some harrowing “Twilight Zone”-twist.
So in response, Yo La Tengo slowed things down, parked that classic 90’s-coolness, and took some time to say what they meant.