On November 20th 1971, Sly and the Family Stone released There’s a Riot Goin’ On, their fifth album and many would consider their best, reaching number 99 in the Rolling Stone‘s greatest ever albums list (though since they named Songs of Innocence the best album of 2014, I don’t know whether such accolades from Rolling Stone mean anything anymore). The record’s title, as much as its subject matter, was a powerful enough summation of the times; at the tail-end of the Flower Power ’60s and a good half a decade before Punk and Hip-Hop would start to spring forth, it summarised a spirit of the age. 37 years, you’d have hoped we could have moved on, but as Yo La Tengo show, on this, their first full-length LP since 2013, there’s still plenty to riot about.
The first thing that’s notable about this record, for an album with ‘riot’ in the title, it’s still pretty mellow: much has been made about how there was no rehearsal process for this album, just allowing tracks to form from recording and experimenting. This lack of rigid structure is both a blessing and a curse, lending the best of the material; an ethereal, almost dreamlike intensity, but also making the worst of it, feel misshapen and half-formed. Quite appropriately, the album’s highlight is the subtly Sly-esque, ‘Let’s Do It Wrong’, a marimba-tinged slow jam ode to the joy of failure.
Somewhat surprisingly for a band with a name like Yo La Tengo, this feels like the first album I’ve noticed them infuse their standard blend of indie ineffectualism with some latin-blecked rhythyms. The back half of the album throbs with little masterpieces like the sunny organ sounds of ‘Esportes Casual’ and the Velvet Underground-inspired ‘Doo Wop of ‘Forever’. For an album of fifteen songs and 63 minutes in length, it’s impressive that they manage to keep the entire endeavour eclectic and involving enough as to avoid repetition or indeed, boredom.
The strength of the back-end of the record is fascinating in contrast to the earlier half which seems to lack much punch or real style. In particular the middle third seems to suffer from a glut of five minute-plus songs that, while pleasant in the ideas and impressive in their ‘wall-of-sound’ construction, still feel a little unwieldy and could have been removed, creating a more even flow between the earlier and later sections. Also, there are a lot of times when the vocals lack the clarity needed to really communicate the intended meaning of the lyrics.
Overall, it’s quite unfair to take this album as the sum of its parts as it is more of a constant. Like waves rolling onto the beach, more than trying to judge any one of the waves individually, it is best experienced as a whole. It lacks the punch of some of Tengo‘s earlier material, or indeed, the Sly album that inspired it, but if taken simply for what it is, it would be hard to say whether, come the end of the year, we will still be talking or thinking about it. However, for now, it’s certainly an enjoyable listen.
There’s A Riot Going On is Available Now On CD, Vinyl & Download via Matador Records.