Yo La Tengo on “There’s a Riot Going On”

Incidental Guides

Jun 04, 2018 Photography by GODLIS Issue #63 - Courtney Barnett
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Listening to Yo La Tengo has always felt like coming home to a warm house in the country, filled with memories. A safe place to go, where variables don't enter. Ira Kaplan, Georgia Hubley, and James McNew are fabricators of music that makes it feel as if you're walking next to or sitting beside them. Such familiarity is what has sustained them through the years to where they now feel like old friends who come around every once in awhile with some songs you're welcome to hear.

Gradually over the five-year span from their last full album of original material, 2013's Fade (2015's Stuff Like That There was mainly a covers album), the instinct to weave together another collection of original material kicked in. "We tend to operate on a cycle of writing songs, making a record, and touring," explains McNew. "We take on different projects [in between], like film soundtracks or playing with other musicians, then somewhere in there this internal musical clock that the three of us seem to share goes off and we slowly start tricking ourselves into writing new songs."

The songs on their new album, There's a Riot Going On, tender a harmony of reassuring voices and vibrations that vivify behind the listener's closed eyes. Gently rocking rhythms drift into filmic ephemera that settles in the subconscious ("Ashes" contains elements of an unused music cue from sessions for the band's score to the documentary film Far From the Tree). Then pleasantly unexpected vibes of South American and European influence, Doo Wop, and '70s soul coast in carrying whispered words of hearts that have been emptied and replenished. This all came about naturally for McNew and the others.

"It all makes its way in and lord knows how it makes its way out," says McNew. "I'm sure stuff I heard 30 years ago is fighting side by side for a way out with stuff I heard this year. I don't think anything I can trace a line to had a direct influence on what we did and the decisions we made in making the record.... It was all unintentional."

Societal whirlwinds had raged around the namesake of Yo La Tengo's latest, impacting the urgency of that classic 1971 Sly and the Family Stone recording, but this album's sound is mostly comforting, offering a refuge from a similar chaos that exists today.

"We don't really start out making a record with any goal or message in mind," says McNew. "It's a way that we've worked for quite a while. I think we find new ways to grow within that but we keep it pretty insular, probably more this time than ever before.... It wasn't like we were watching the news and were like 'My god, we've got to get into the studio right now.'"

Instead of attempting to dissect a Yo La Tengo album, we should just enjoy the solace it provides, and leave its meaning to the imagination, like they did.

"Maybe a good way to react in the face of [everything] is to be yourself more," says McNew. "Do what you do but go deeper. I think we challenged ourselves to do that. I don't think by nature we are very explicit or outspoken. God bless everybody who is but we're not that way. I think our band's entire existence is its own statement. I'm comfortable with the strength of that."

[Note: This article originally appeared in Under the Radar's Spring 2018 Issue (March/April/May 2018), which is out now. This is its debut online.]

www.yolatengo.com

 

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