by Tim Crisp (@betteryetpod)
The discussion of a musical act’s longevity opens the door to a litany of subjective factors that range far beyond a plain measurement of time. There are certain relativities specific to genre and era that make one band’s short stretch on the historical timeline an equivalent to profound achievement in full scale qualification. Tenement’s passage into their tenth year as a self-sustaining DIY band is a factor that holds weight in arguing their status as one of the most important bands of our age. This points to the generally shorter life expectancy of bands within large net DIY/punk bands—a reality that’s been attached to the genre since pre-inception—but also to the digital age that we’re in where so much has shifted in the economies of music. The hustle has changed and a band’s ability to maintain in an era where album sales represent so little of their meal ticket is a tremendous accomplishment.
Of course, when we talk about longevity, length of time doesn’t amount to squat if that time is not spent also producing quality records. To look at some of the acts who continue to tour and to live off the music they’ve made, the list of those who actually continue to produce songs that feel like an important addition to the catalog is rare and usually comes with its own sets of qualifiers. Someone who has been going at it for a real healthy length of time is Bruce Springsteen. Bruce’s live show speaks for itself: at 68 he still brings it like he did when he was 22, his age when his first record Greetings from Asbury Park was released. His most recent output of records has been pretty good, each containing songs worth going to bat for, but it’s most certainly a qualified “pretty good;” what is really said is they’re good enough to be justifiable.
Bruce is an interesting case too in analyzing the changes that have occurred in music over the stretch of those 45 years. One of the more noteworthy achievements in Springsteen’s legacy was his ability to adapt to MTV, something few of his contemporaries could manage as gracefully as Bruce did with Born In The USA. A shift in culture can leave so many behind, but there’s also the simple fact that maintaining for so long is nearly impossible, even for those whose legacies are marked by consistency. A fallow period is accepted as readily as the later output’s okayness. For Bruce it came in the late 80’s and went to the mid 90’s; Bowie had multiple periods where his records didn’t stick; Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, Neil Young, all have dark periods and all have tantamount Return To Form records. A part of longevity can be finding a way to re-establish oneself after an extended period of looking like you were toast.
There are a few who have achieved a longevity through a thorough control of their output, using their standing as respected artists to dictate production on their time. Tom Waits, Bjork, and Leonard Cohen all fit this description. Then there a very select few who have somehow managed to produce consistently, for an extended period of time, through different changes in the musical landscape, great records that do not dip in quality and serve as an unqualified, worthwhile addition to an already legendary catalog. Currently there are two who fit this description; one of them is Nick Cave and the other is Yo La Tengo.
There’s A Riot Going On is Yo La Tengo’s 15th studio album, the first new album from the band since entering their fourth decade. Ira Kaplan and Georgia Hubley, 61 and 58 respectively, started YLT in 1984 and solidified as a three piece with youngster James McNew, now 48, in 1991. Their status as one of the pre-eminent figureheads in indie rock has been an established fact for 25 years; their status as a fucking great band goes back even further. This position, both as an institution and as an unwaveringly great band, is about more than songs and players. It’s about a group of players who have maintained an exploratory sense and who have always been finding ways to avoid stagnancy. The Story Of Yo La Tengo (American Band) is the story of how to stay self-aware.
There’s a story Ira Kaplan told Marc Maron on WTF of playing a show around the time of Stuff Like That There and being approached by a fan who’d brought his teenage son to the concert. The man told Ira, politely, that his son was a little disappointed in the show’s quiet vibe (i.e. lack of Kaplan’s feedback freakouts) and Ira, politely, apologized and said “next time we’re in town I’ll probably be back on that.” It’s an insight into an intentionality YLT has maintained throughout their career, the old “too much of a good thing.” Kaplan’s guitar playing is the band’s chief characteristic. He’s a masterful noisemaker, able to carry on endlessly with capabilities that are, as Kaplan himself admits freely, somewhat limited. He doesn’t solo the way J. Mascis or Nels Cline does—endlessly working the length of the fretboard—he holds an ability to create captivating sounds out of everything he’s attached to. It’s that Neil Young school of one note guitar solos, only Kaplan knows how to play his guitar, how to play his amp, and how the two will play off of each other. In that same Maron interview, when talking about his guitar playing Kaplan pointed to the difficulties of being a lone guitarist (and also not being much for a flashy solo) saying he needed to find a way to keep his guitar from dropping out if he wanted to play a solo. In order to avoid the jarring effect of a guitar playing only high notes over only a bass meant that Kaplan would have to orchestrate a bed of noise to maintain depth underneath the notes. “I Heard You Looking,” “Blue Line Swinger,” and “Sugarcube” are gorgeous displays of his ability to create a huge aural scape while simultaneously busting off some serious rippers. Hubley and McNew, an equally textural rhythm section, always work with a keen understanding of how to function best during Kaplan’s extended solos; listening to all three of the mentioned tracks, Georgia and James’ contributions are not only grounding, but aware and elusively complex.
The songs mentioned, all occur on successive records, Painful, Electr-o-pura, and I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One mark the band’s ascent to the top of an indie rock community that was swelling in the wake of grunge. Electr-o-pura would finish 9th in the 1995 Pazz & Jop, ahead of Sonic Youth and Pavement and one spot behind Springsteen’s The Ghost of Tom Joad—that old Return To Form we talked about—and “Sugarcube” from I Can Hear… may have been the band’s best single to date. “Sugarcube” was an encapsulation of the band’s big-chorus single, in a lot of ways, a better version of “Tom Courtenay” (i.e. more radio/video friendly) which was a better version of “Upside-down” from May I Sing With Me in 1992; it would also be YLT’s last attempt at creating this type of track. Not that YLT haven’t released traction-gaining singles since then (“You Can Have It All”, “Ohm”) but in terms of the trajectory mapped out, “Sugarcube” is the peak, and rather than make an attempt to top it they move on. There is always space left to be explored, and tracing the YLT discography, there are dozens of similar paths that follow this guided intention of knowing when to step back.
And that’s kind of the point that I’ve been roundabout trying to make. Over the course of their 34 years, Yo La Tengo have operated with the intention of being the best and most complete band they can be. Their relevance and their freshness comes from doing what they can with their capabilities and in desiring an adeptness beyond the one or two things they’re really naturally good at. Think of modern indie rock bands like The National or The Hold Steady. Listening to each of those bands, each discography runs as a narrative of a band who had something good and then honed in and fleshed it out; then when they made the absolute most of it, they were left directionless. YLT’s strength is in changing, sometimes drastically, before anything feels overdone, and finding where they can explore best. This is a trait that every band wants to tell you they possess, but really very few do.
Of the handful of bands who fit the above description, the noteworthy two are NRBQ and Sly & The Family Stone. NRBQ were the embodiment of the bar band Craig Finn was singing about on those early Hold Steady records. In the truest sense, they were the band who could play whatever and play it well, combining just about every genre into a big stew. YLT are vocal NRBQ disciples and have taken on that model, using their roots in Hoboken/New York punk in the 80’s, stretching the range of influence further. In looking at Fakebook, Stuff Like That There, or any random set from the band's Hanukkah sets at Maxwell’s, the list of covers that come from this band is mind-numbing. “How?” is an intriguing question but “Why?” has more insight. Because they, as a band, want to be one who can play “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” followed by “Raw Power” not only as a point of pride in being able but also because they like Hank Williams and The Stooges equally and they get a joy in their ability to play those songs themselves. It seems so basic to consider what a well-executed cover can achieve, but I feel like the only bands I ever see play covers are new ones who don’t have enough songs for a set yet. YLT use records like Fakebook and Stuff Like That There to function like a cover song in their discography. A second to pause and have some fun, while also taking time to prepare something new.
The title of that something new is There’s A Riot Going On which takes its name from Sly & The Family Stone’s 1971 masterpiece of experimental rhythms, hard funk, and political unrest. The album’s dense tones and lack of big singles was a pretty hard contrast from songs like “Dance To The Music” and “Everyday People” which had been released in ‘68 and ‘69, respectively. Sly was always a progressive, but Riot was a demanding release that would inspire the directions of George Clinton’s funk and Miles Davis’ jazz-fusion. While the tonal shift may have challenged listeners to dig into understanding the record’s concepts, the political message was spelled the fuck out. Sly’s unrest and disillusion with the political assassinations and the decline of the civil rights movement became one of the great documents of the death of 60’s optimism. Marvin Gaye asked “What’s Goin’ On?” and Sly gave an answer.
Yo La Tengo’s evocation of Sly Stone is obviously pointed at 2018, though—I would say thankfully—the direct statements onto today’s political unrest end with the title. As white liberalism is just now beginning to resist the hands pushing its face into the mirror, there is a graciousness in three middle-aged white people not chiming in any further. Instead the band uses Sly’s Riot as a template to create a dense landscape that elaborates on the nightmare of 2018 consciousness. If Sly Stone was reporting what was taking place in the streets, YLT’s Riot documents the experience of seeing the riot on the streets and watching the riot on your laptop screen, while you watch it on your TV, while you watch it on your iPhone.
Georgia, Ira, and James recorded the album in their rehearsal space without an outside engineer and without rehearsing beforehand. These songs are the product of the three getting together, pushing record, and forming a statement. As a production, it’s the first record YLT have recorded themselves, and it is a shining moment for McNew who assembled the record. Warm synth tones sit on top of the entirety of There’s A Riot Going On and help to hold it solidly in place. There’s a familiarity to the tone, something like the middle of I Can Hear The Heart Beating As One, a little bit of Summer Sun, and moodier tracks on Fade, but this record is very fresh, and remarkably good.
Minimal opener “You Are Here” begins with a wash of synth tracks on opposite sides of the mix which hold while the band slowly fades in. Anchored by a fuzzy looping bassline, shakers and tambourine, and an arpeggiated guitar, the synths begin exploring in waves while Hubley’s drumming, low in the mix, is quietly active in between beats. The track is slow and deliberate, finding movement on top and underneath but staying contained. The instrumental explorations of YLT have always been greatly exciting, but for all the barnburners they’ve made their name on, their ability to be equally understated has driven much of their output over the last ten years.
The aural breadth of “You Are Here” holds throughout the record, onto accessible gems like “Shades of Blue” and “For You Too” and on deeper instrumental passages like “Dream Dream Away” and “Shortwave.” What There’s A Riot Going On borrows exceptionally well from its namesake is a full commitment to a mood and tone that are befitting to the record’s thesis. “For You Too” is one of the record’s prettiest tracks with a hummable melody and a sweet vocal performance from Kaplan. It’s an effortless gem from a gifted writer and the track you put on a playlist for someone you’ve got a big crush on, but the mix is a dream-like wash which finds the point of intersection between the song’s strengths and the album’s tones. Elsewhere “For You Too” would have had three guitar tracks or been driven by an acoustic guitar, but here a Muff’d bass tone sits at the center with a trebly guitar that works around the bass. Kaplan’s vocals are mixed purposefully low making the whole track feel a little far off, but pillowy and tender.
There’s A Riot Going On makes use of its unique production techniques to create a mood across the album’s 15 tracks, but it also takes advantage of its circumstances to throw away the script. “Dream Dream Away” begins as a passage centered around open chords strummed on a steel guitar, but gives way to a long drone halfway through the song. As claustrophobia sets in the guitar returns along with a breathy vocal from McNew, who is guiding but a little nerve-racking. “Dream Dream Away” folds into “Shortwave,” a deeply moving textural piece that may be the album’s best track. Its parts aren’t easily disseminated as sound samples enter and exit and an organ melody moves across the mix discontinuously. When you first hear the samples it feels as if they will move in to form a clear statement, but then they disappear before you can make sense of them, only to give way to more noise on top of a brooding, scape of paranoid texture; you feel lost and a little overwhelmed and worried. Sound familiar?
The concern of There’s A Riot Going On is not in being the voice of reason or shouting directives, its focus is on the heady experience of seeing a madness and seeing yourself see said madness. It’s the sound of a riot going on around you and the internal experience of trying to make a kind of sense—a nightmare that still has dreams. For Georgia, Ira, and James the last year and a half has felt like a reason to hole up and find the best way to process, as individuals, as partners, and as a band. They’ve turned their processing into a gracious gift. Another one to add to the pile.