Yo La Tengo stirring up social consciousness with a ‘Riot’

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Yo La Tengo —Georgia Hubley (from left), Ira Kaplan and James McNew and | GODLIS

By all accounts the new Yo La Tengo album sounds just like it’s supposed to — an auditory painting filled with colorful sounds and careful emotions that come to the surface after spending some time really taking in the 15 tracks.

There’s the soft, familiar beauty of Ira Kaplan’s guitars, the calm meditation of James McNew’s bass lines and the steady focus of Georgia Hubley’s drumming on the pensive instrumental opener “You Are Here,” evolving into the atmospheric electronics and dreamy male-female vocal interplay on “She May, She Might” and “For You Too.” The creative formula has made Yo La Tengo one of indie rock’s most revered and respected bands nearly 35 years after their formation in Hoboken, New Jersey at a formative time before “indie rock” became a mass loophole genre.

YO LA TENGO When: 8 p.m. March 29 – 30 Where: Thalia Hall, 1807 S. Allport Tickets: $22-45 Info: thaliahallchicago.com

But there’s also something a bit different on the new album, released on Matador Records, the band’s home for the past 25 years. “There’s a Riot Going On” shares a name with the landmark 1971 Sly & the Family Stone album, a dark and brooding piece that was released at a time of great turmoil in America — not unlike the shape we find ourselves in now.

“Of course the state of the world had a huge impact on what we are doing and what we continue to be surrounded by. There’s really no escaping it. One of us brought up the title and we thought it felt pretty right for where we are and what we are doing,” says McNew of the album, which started taking fruition in January 2017 around the time of the new administration’s inauguration.

Though it may not be as in-your-face as other political anthems, the theme is subtle on Yo La Tengo’s latest effort. “I think there’s a generally accepted version of protest music that most people seem to subscribe to,” McNew continues, “and I don’t think it has to be limited to that at all. However you want to hear it is, that’s great with us.”

In addition to the topical themes, some might also hear the languid strumming séance of “Dream Dream Away” as a send-off to Tom Petty with the musical progression very similar to “Free Fallin’.”

“I think we have experienced a lot of stuff, not just in the outside news world but in our own lives, having lost people close to us and also losing friends and family,” says McNew, responding to a comment Kaplan had made in a recent piece in Interview magazine about seizing the moment as time runs out. “The older you get, that kind of stuff starts to happen more and more. We have always been influenced by life.”

“There’s a Riot Going On” comes five years after Yo La Tengo’s 2013 opus “Fade,” the band’s last full-length album of original material (a covers and remix album “Stuff Like That There” was also released and toured behind in 2015). In the interim, the members of Yo La Tengo were wrapped up in film scoring projects, as they’ve done since the early 2000s, this time including a sizable effort to produce a soundtrack for a documentary based on the book “Far From The Tree,” about families of children with Down syndrome and autism, scheduled to be released this summer.

“I think it directly impacted [the new album],” says McNew. “All the film soundtrack work we have done we have done ourselves here in our rehearsal room recording it on Pro Tools, watching scenes from the movie that we are working on and composing to picture. We hit a rhythm and a way of writing and we kept working and writing that way even though the film was finished. And it was really fun, weird and liberating at the same time trying anything we wanted to try and not worried about the clock ticking away or going over a budget for a nicer recording studio. It was a great experience.”

Coming back to the fold for mixing duties was John McEntire of the Chicago bands Tortoise and The Sea and Cake. Yo La Tengo had also previously used McEntire’s locally-based Soma Studios, which has since shuttered.

“We have known John since 1992 when he was in the band Seam and we have been friends ever since,” says McNew, reflecting on the greater significance of the city to Yo La Tengo. “Chicago is one of the greatest, most important music cites in the world in the history of time and has always been a gigantic influence on us and an inspiration to us. The very first tour I did, was in spring 1991 with Yo La Tengo and we played at Lounge Ax. I’d never been anywhere, had never been off the East Coast in my life and always wanted to go to Chicago, and it exceeded my wildest dreams and it continues to. I can’t wait to come back.” Yo La Tengo indeed comes back March 29 and 30 at Thalia Hall.

Selena Fragassi is a Chicago-based freelance writer.

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